Stories of Other Democratic Presidents Offer Parallels and Cautionary Tales for Obama
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Each time a newly elected president steps onto the inaugural platform and prepares to take the oath of office, he finds himself tugged in opposite directions.
Conscious of the dozens who have taken the same oath before him, feeling the weight of history, aware that some of his own legitimacy rests on that heritage, he seeks links with memory and tradition. But just as strongly, he wants to declare that he represents a new beginning, a change from what has gone before, especially if the change of administrations also represents a change of parties.
In the past three-quarters of a century, four inaugurals have spotlighted Democrats who were succeeding Republican presidents: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, James Earl Carter and William Jefferson Clinton. Today, Barack Hussein Obama became the fifth in that progression. (Two other Democrats, Harry S. Truman and Lyndon Baines Johnson, were vice presidents sworn in without pomp and ceremony, on the sudden deaths of Roosevelt and Kennedy.)
No two beginnings are ever exactly the same, but still the quest for parallels is inevitable.
Obama, for example, is taking office in the worst economic situation since the one that confronted Roosevelt in 1933. But the two men's approaches are as unlike as the raw facts each leader faced.
When Roosevelt was sworn in (on March 4, the last such late date for the oath-taking) the Great Depression was 3 1/2 years old, and the unemployment rate was almost 25 percent. But from the election until March, Roosevelt resisted being drawn into consultations with defeated President Herbert Hoover. And he insisted on keeping his own plans under wraps.
As James Hagerty wrote in the New York Times, "The President-elect so far has not revealed his program and has resisted all attempts to get him to make a statement in advance of his inaugural speech on Saturday."
Obama, by contrast, has been a constant and voluble presence in the 11 weeks since Election Day, with almost daily statements, news conferences and interviews, all stressing the urgency of early action by Congress to halt the slump in housing, banking, commerce, manufacturing and employment that has preoccupied the country at least since mid-September.
In part because of the time lag in inaugurating the new president in 1933, and in part because Roosevelt was so resistant to showing his hand, the crisis in banking had reached a critical stage as he took the oath. The New York Times reported that "though the city was gay with flags and lively with the music of bands and cheers for the marchers in the inaugural parade, which followed the oath taking, the atmosphere which surrounded the change of government in the United States was comparable to that which might be found in a beleaguered capital in war time. The President in his address told the people that they were at war with the forces of depression and offered them leadership in the new campaign to be waged against these forces."
Roosevelt had little in the way of programs to announce, but his rhetoric, including the historic line "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," conveyed hope. And action came quickly: a special session of Congress to pass legislation on bank rescues, a meeting with all the state governors to offer them financial relief, and soon the 100 days of New Deal measures.
Obama is poised for a similar burst of activity, after a journey by train that tracked a route followed by both Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, from Philadelphia to Baltimore to Washington.
In 1961, Another First
If circumstances today are reminiscent of the Great Depression, then the personal drama of Obama's swearing-in most resembles that of Kennedy in 1961. Kennedy represented generational change of the most dramatic sort; he was the youngest elected president ever, at 43, succeeding the 70-year-old Eisenhower, the eldest to hold the office up to that point.