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F.D.R. appreciated the irony that it was the Depression that made it possible for him to realize those larger objectives. It would be too much to say that he deliberately prolonged the crisis to preserve the possibilities for reform. But he candidly acknowledged the relationship between peril and progress in his second Inaugural Address, on Jan. 20, 1937. He began on that day by boasting of "our progress out of the Depression" and went on to list several signs of returning prosperity.
But then he said something decidedly unusual in the canon of presidential addresses. "Such symptoms of prosperity," he warned, "may become portents of disaster!" Only then did he utter one of his most quoted and most misunderstood lines: "I see one-third of a nation ill housed, ill clad, ill nourished."
The address in its entirety makes it clear that when he spoke of that "one-third of a nation," F.D.R. was not referring primarily to the victims of the Great Depression, which he thought was ending. He was speaking, rather, about the accumulated social and human deficits spawned by more than a century of buccaneering, laissez-faire American capitalism deficits that he considered not yet fully redeemed in 1937. Solving that problem was what he meant when he said in June 1936 that "this generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny."
Such rendezvous are rare in American history, and not without reason. As the historian Henry Adams wrote, among the founders of the Republic, the greatest fear "was power; not merely power in the hands of a president or a prince, of one assembly or several, of many citizens or few, but power in the abstract, wherever it existed and under whatever form it was known." That's why the framers of the Constitution constructed a political order based on "checks and balances." That arrangement has conspicuous virtues, but it also designs a measure of paralysis into the American political system. It impedes swift adjustment to changing economic and social realities. It sustains a chronic deadlock in which trauma and shock become the necessary preconditions for effective political action. To a degree not found in other political cultures, it forges a perverse partnership between danger and opportunity.
President Obama knows this. Asked by PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer in February if he did not feel burdened by the several crises now besetting the country, Obama noted that the moment "is full of peril but full of possibility" and that such times are "when the political system starts to move effectively."
Roosevelt could not have said it better. F.D.R. championed a long-deferred reform agenda that put security at its core. Obama wants to advance another set of reforms that have long been stalled. He has already used the crisis to propose new regulatory rules for the banking-and-finance industry. But there are many more objectives on the horizon. Universal health care was first advocated in the platform of Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party in 1912. A cogent energy policy has been pushed by every President since Richard Nixon, to no avail. Immigration begs for comprehensive rethinking, as do education, a host of environmental issues, and central tenets of national-security policy and military doctrine.
Like F.D.R., Obama must take measures to turn the economy around. If he doesn't, he'll go down in the history books as another Hoover. But to warrant comparison with Roosevelt, he will be judged not simply on whether he manages a rescue from the current economic crisis but also on whether he grasps the opportunity to make us more resilient to face those future crises that inevitably await us.
Kennedy teaches history at Stanford University. He is the author of Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for history