From FDR to Clinton, Parallels and Cautionary Notes

By David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

And Kennedy, like Obama, was breaking an unspoken but powerful barrier. Obama is the first black president; Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic.

Kennedy as much as Obama reveled in proclaiming himself something new. "Let the word go forth," he said to those who braved bitter winds, 22-degree temperatures and almost eight inches of overnight snow, "from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace."

But beyond those similarities, the circumstances in which they have come to office are strikingly different.

Obama capitalized on the unpopularity of the outgoing Republican president, George W. Bush, while Kennedy was careful, in campaigning against Richard M. Nixon, never to challenge the reputation of the retiring and very popular Eisenhower.

When Eisenhower invited him to the White House for substantive briefings, not mere courtesy calls, Kennedy accepted and expressed his gratitude for what he learned of the world's trouble spots from the president and his secretaries of state, defense and Treasury.

After his narrow victory, Kennedy reached out to Republicans, naming Douglas Dillon, who had been in Eisenhower's sub-Cabinet, as his Treasury chief, and Ford executive Robert McNamara as his defense secretary. In Florida on a pre-inaugural holiday, he paid a courtesy call on former president Herbert Hoover.

Obama has also reached across the aisle, keeping Bush's defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, and asking retiring Republican Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois to be his transportation secretary. He has carefully wooed congressional Republican support for his economic stimulus plan.

There were trouble spots on the horizon when Kennedy took over, but no looming crises. In the first days after his inauguration, Nikita Khrushchev, the Kremlin leader, invited the American ambassador in for a chat and suggested he hoped for warmer relations with the new president. It would be months before Khrushchev shocked Kennedy with his brutal rhetoric at their Vienna summit, and then by the erection of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban missile crisis.

At home, unemployment was ticking up toward 6.6 percent, prompting Kennedy to double food aid to the needy with his first executive order. There was grumbling from the left -- labor leaders who were aggravated that one of their number was rejected by McNamara for a top Pentagon post, complaints from some old-line Democrats that the Kennedy friends were getting all the jobs.

But it was all minor grousing, and a kind of euphoria swept Washington as hordes of young people, inspired by Kennedy's call to public service, flocked into the capital.

Whether this inauguration will inspire a similar outpouring is not clear, but with two wars and a major economic crisis today, the unbridled optimism of the New Frontier can hardly be duplicated.

Hopeful Beginnings

Sixteen years passed between Kennedy's inaugural and that of the next newly elected Democrat, Carter; and another 16 until Clinton's. Both of the latter hold cautionary notes for Obama.

Carter -- the first president to be elected from the Deep South in 125 years, and plausibly the first whose Southern electoral votes depended crucially on support from newly enfranchised blacks -- defeated Gerald Ford, the only president never elected to national office. Carter came to power amid worries about a lagging economy (unemployment, at 7.5 percent, was higher than today's) and shortages of natural gas, but mainly a sense of relief after the bitter dramas of the Nixon era.

Carter saw himself as a sharp break with the past. "It's going to be a new day, a new beginning, a new spirit for your country," he told his fellow residents of Plains, Ga., who came to see him off to the capital. On the inaugural platform, he declared that the day not only marked "a new beginning," but also "a new dedication within our government, and a new spirit among us all."

It did not last, and four years later, a defeated Carter was a frustrated witness at the swearing-in of Ronald Reagan, who welcomed home from Iran the hostages Carter had tried to have released on his watch.

When Clinton arrived in 1993 (accompanied, it should be noted, by a crisis involving Saddam Hussein, who was challenging American surveillance overflights in Iraq), he was, like Carter, an outsider coming to change a capital whose culture he had called corrupt.

In his inaugural address, Clinton recalled that "Thomas Jefferson believed that to preserve the very foundations of our nation, we would need dramatic change from time to time. Well, my fellow citizens, this is our time. Let us embrace it."

He forecast "an end to the era of deadlock and drift," saying, "A new season of American renewal has begun." But within two years, Clinton's signature health-reform initiative had died without even the pretense of a floor vote, and he had seen his party lose control of Congress. Subsequently, his greatest success came in spurring economic growth; unemployment, which started at 7.3 percent, worked down to 4.2 percent. That helped Clinton win reelection, but his second term disappointed, with the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, impeachment and the loss of the White House to Bush, a Republican.

The lesson of history is clear. The hopes of Inauguration Day are just that -- hopes. What happens to them is determined by what comes afterward.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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