Wednesday, Jun. 24, 2009

Getting It Right

My grandfather was a dirt farmer with only a sixth-grade education. During the Depression, he eked out a living selling blocks of ice. But in those days, even though he was poor, he knew someone special: from listening to the fireside chats on the radio, he knew Franklin Roosevelt. And he believed that Roosevelt knew what his life was like — and cared about it too.

I grew up listening to my grandfather's tales of what it was like to live through the Depression and the war and what Roosevelt meant to him. When I was President, in another time of change and uncertainty, I often looked at the portrait of F.D.R. in the Roosevelt Room and remembered my grandfather's stories.

Besides having a deep personal connection to ordinary citizens, Roosevelt got the big things right. When he came into office during the Depression, he saw that the ills of the country could not be addressed without more aggressive involvement by the government. He ran for President as a fiscal conservative, promising to balance the budget. But unlike his predecessor, he quickly realized that, with prices collapsing and unemployment exploding, only the Federal Government could step into the breach and restart the economy.

Roosevelt also knew that in a highly dynamic time like his — or the one we're in now — you have to do a lot more than one thing at a time. I was often criticized, just as President Obama is now, for trying to do too many things at once. Roosevelt understood that in a complex and perilous situation, you have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, and he was masterful in doing a variety of difficult things simultaneously.

He was able to do that because he surrounded himself with brilliant people who knew more about particular subjects than he did. He enjoyed the arguments they had with one another — and with him — as they searched for the right policies. Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said Roosevelt had a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament. That temperament allowed him to inspire those around him to give their best. He made public service fun again.

It didn't hurt, of course, that Roosevelt was also a political genius. He knew how to pass legislation in Congress. He knew how to talk to the American people, the way he talked to my grandfather. While he was busy rebuilding the economy, he saw that war was coming in Europe and that he needed to prepare our country, help the British, and support and encourage Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

F.D.R. had another quality important in a President: the self-confidence to abandon a policy that wasn't working. He believed in experimentation, but he didn't deny the evidence when an experiment proved unsuccessful. In any highly dynamic time, with new and complex challenges, the President needs an appetite for experimentation and the determination to keep what works and scrap what doesn't.

When I was President, F.D.R.'s portrait hung near that of the 26th President, his cousin Theodore Roosevelt. They should have been together. Teddy Roosevelt was the first President to come to grips with the challenges presented by America's transition from a rural to an urban society; from an agricultural to an industrial economy; from a fairly stable and homogeneous nation to a more dynamic, diverse one of new immigrants; from a nation of modest influence to a global power.

His successes in limiting the abuses and spreading the benefits of industrial capitalism were admirable but incomplete. Then came World War I and the conservative reactions of the '20s.

The Depression gave F.D.R. the chance to use the power of government to complete the work his cousin had begun: to build a great middle class, help the poor work their way into it and give Americans a modicum of security in old age. His leadership during World War II and the plans he made for the U.N. and a permanent leadership role for the U.S. on the world stage cemented his legacy as one of our greatest Presidents. I thought of both Roosevelts when I told Americans that we needed a new social contract for the 21st century, one that would keep us moving toward a "more perfect union" in a highly interdependent, complex, ever changing world.

That is the challenge President Obama has inherited. I believe he will succeed in his efforts at economic recovery, health-care reform and taking big steps on climate change. Along the way, I hope he will be inspired by F.D.R.'s concern for all Americans, his relentless optimism, his penchant for experimentation, his relish for spirited debate among brilliant advisers and his unshakable faith in the promise of America.