I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about what President-Elect Obama should say in his First Inaugural Address tomorrow. As with many Americans are in these difﬁcult days, Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been occupying my thoughts as I think ahead to what the change in leadership will bring. As the depths of the economic crisis and the true scale of the “bailouts” and economic stimulus needed have become clear (but by no means completely known), the only American presidents who faced a “modern” economy in such deep crisis were Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
And regardless of what you believe ﬁnally ended the Great Depression—whether you believe it was FDR’s New Deal and the buildup to WWII, or the natural regrowth of the economy creating demand which ﬁnally exceeded supply, or a bit of both—it is clear that Hoover’s response to economic crisis was tepid and grudging, and FDR promised ﬁrm, activist leadership in the face of crisis.
And that activism and energy played a major role in creating momentum and preventing loss of conﬁdence among the banks and investors that require an intricate web of conﬁdence. Conﬁdence in each other’s ability to make good on loans or contracts. Conﬁdence in the ability of business debtors that they will be able to maintain and grow their customer base. Conﬁdence in the ability of those customers to keep their jobs and pay their bills and mortgages.
To the extent that conﬁdence-building worked in the early 1930’s, it was largely FDR himself who managed to bolster the conﬁdence and optimism of the people, while a new cabinet and executive branch ﬁlled with America’s best and brightest tried experiment after experiment, argument after argument, to give business and ﬁnancial leaders the conﬁdence that their investments in growth would be matched by each other’s consumption and slowly increasing spending by consumers.
The situation we face, as everyone seems to grasp somewhere deep within ourselves, is very similar, and requires the same careful husbandry of conﬁdence and optimism in order to kickstart our economy. In preparing some fundraising remarks earlier this fall, I read the early speeches and ﬁreside addresses by FDR. His First Inaugural speech is amazing, and every American who watched President-Elect Obama’s speech at George Mason last week on the economy was watching a modernization and an invocation of that fateful speech.
And my reading of FDR’s great speeches, which did so much to motivate and lead us out of panic and despair in the early days of 1933, led me to wonder what Obama should say to us in his First Inaugural next
The following is my list of things Obama should tell the American people later today.
1. President-elect Obama should explain to us the intricate web of conﬁdence that ties together our economy, and explain in terms that non-economists can understand how it works so that the people will be able to lend their informed support to the plans now being made in Washington. We do not understand the various bailouts and stimulus packages and how they actually lead to the desired result. Please clarify it, because it sounds like we only get one shot at this and we need to get it right.
2. Obama should make it clear that we are not abandoning the principles of commerce and trade, nor are we becoming “socialists” simply because we believe that some problems are bigger than private resources can solve. We’re all believers in free enterprise now, but sometimes the free enterprise system needs collective action and a concerted effort from everyone.
3. And he should make it clear that this ”help from everyone” to kickstart our economy really means that every American plays a crucial role. President-elect Obama should make a patriotic call to stimulate local and regional economic activity, and not just wait for the big multi-national corporations to recover. This will create jobs and get money and local loans ﬂowing again, even if global trade and large, global companies take longer to stabilize.
4. The president-elect should make it clear that investment in America is the patriotic thing to do, and that rebuilding our economy not only helps us, and our children, but the world. Our humanitarian and democratic outreach to the world, our environmental concerns, and our ability to address problems elsewhere in addition to those at home, depends crucially on a healthy economy. America’s place in the world, and our ability to be a force for change and for good, depends on getting back to sound ﬁnancial and business shape.
5. And he should outline the nature of his plan and promise a series of regular discussions with the American people, in the spirit of FDR’s ﬁreside chats but with the full force of modern media and communications, to ensure that all of us understand the situation, how each measure is designed to work and how we intend to use our scarce resources wisely and avoid waste. And that we understand how we’re progressing, and where we still need work. Treat the people like partners in this enterprise, not “interest groups,” or “demographics” to be polled. Mobilize us for action, as FDR did, and we’ll respond in kind.
6. And ﬁnally, President-elect Obama should call upon us all to temporarily put aside the issues that divide us in other ways; social issues, differences in economic approach, and issues of ideology. Not because these aren’t central to our political life and deserve democratic debate and discussion, but because right now, as in the 1930’s and 1940’s, we have serious issues that we need to come together and solve, with one voice, as one people.
And that is what I think President-elect Obama should say to the American people