Thursday, August 07, 2008

FDR, not JFK

In the very well known picture shown below, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill), the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for the presidency this year, is visualized as a new John F. Kennedy even though the most likely model is the candidate I wanted, but could not get, in 1976: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Sure, Obama is reminiscent of Kennedy, who was 43 when he was sworn in and deemed "young" (a notion that puzzled me at the time). Obama also shares with Kennedy the mastery of a personal style of oratory, his identity as a member of an "outsider" group in terms of the levers of American society and, of course, charisma.

Yet Obama will be 47 years old if he wins the election and is sworn in, closer to Franklin Roosevelt's 51. (I now regard both ages as relatively "young.") Although he is neither patrician nor disabled and thus superficially a very different kind of man, Obama's time and challenge resemble FDR's more closely than Kennedy's.

JFK was elected at the peak of American prosperity, power and self-confidence. Obama, if elected, will preside over a time in which -- as with 1932 -- fear is the nation's major enemy. Indeed, the government calls the people it uses as excuses for military adventures, "terrorists," that is, inspirers of fear (although, franky, I am not particularly terrorized).

Like FDR, a putative President Obama (what a fine ring that has!) will face:
  • reconstructing confidence in the nation's financial sector through thoroughgoing reform;
  • rescuing thousands of Americans from bankruptcy and potential homelessness (as in the Depression, I'm told there are tent cities in the Southwest, where people who lost their homes are beginning to squat);
  • reversing the economic decline of the wage-earning majority who on average today earn less than their parents earned in 1973.
That's not mentioning uniquely contemporary problems, such as:
  • the erosion of respect for the United States following unprovoked aggression against Iraq;
  • successful pursuit of those responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001;
  • committing to eradicate extreme poverty from the face of the earth;
  • finding a way to revamp the health system so every U.S. inhabitant has a realistic opportunity to get care as basic human dignity requires;
  • overhauling Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare and other social programs to prevent their financial ruin and assure a sturdy safety net for future generations;
  • the restoration of the nation's infrastructure, neglected over the past 30 years; and
  • encouraging the development of renewable sources of energy to replace our current overuse of hydrocarbons such as petroleum.
These are all Roosevelt-scale, foundational projects. These are not dazzling new programs, such as JFK's NASA and Peace Corps, which although worthy of continuation, were extensions of the national purpose. They are essentials without which the republic is at peril.
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