Illustration by Mark Owens
Illustration by Mark Owens

On Halloween night in 1936, before an admiring crowd that filled Madison Square Garden, President Franklin D. Roosevelt attacked the enemies of the New Deal in words that rang with populist fury.

“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace -- business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering,” he declared in New York. “They had begun to consider the government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob. Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me -- and I welcome their hatred.” Three days later, FDR won a second term by the most lopsided margin of electoral votes in U.S. history.

Although Roosevelt’s opponents, in and out of the Republican Party, routinely accused him of waging “class warfare,” the charge did them no good and may even have backfired. Now that the GOP is training the same kind of rhetoric on Barack Obama’s proposal to slap a higher tax on millionaires, it might be instructive to understand why Roosevelt was successful -- and to judge whether the man who now occupies the White House can benefit from his example as he campaigns for his own re-election.

FDR had sound reasons to think his assault on the moneyed few would help gain him a sweeping victory. Most Americans still blamed Wall Street and giant corporations for causing the Great Depression, and they credited Roosevelt with the modest recovery and the 10-percentage-point decrease in unemployment -- due, in part, to new government jobs -- that had occurred during his tenure.

Labor Surge

Equally significant was a historic surge in labor organizing: Millions of wage earners were joining new unions at auto plants, steel mills, electrical factories, and on the docks. While big strikes alienated some in the middle class, the merit of the labor movement’s demand for industrial democracy was hard to deny. From Ford to General Motors to U.S. Steel, the richest companies in the nation had long been known for treating their blue-collar employees as little more than hired serfs.

Roosevelt was also fortunate that his most prominent enemies seemed determined to live up to his description of them. It was anti-New Deal businessmen, in their contempt for unions and neglect of the jobless, who seemed bent on stirring up class warfare. In 1934, a bevy of corporate leaders -- including the chief executives of GM, Montgomery Ward and DuPont -- had founded the American Liberty League to counter what they claimed was the president’s march toward a totalitarianism greater than that being practiced by Hitler or Stalin.

But the league made no serious attempt to mobilize grassroots support to beat back FDR’s alleged violation of the Constitution and property rights. Worse, its spokesmen railed against such popular New Deal measures as Social Security, which they predicted would “mark the end of democracy.” Even Herbert Hoover, who detested FDR, scoffed that the league represented only the “Wall Street model of human liberty.”

Barack Obama enjoys none of those advantages. In contrast to the 1930s, unions are a shrinking force in private industry and are struggling to hold on to their bargaining power in the public sector. The conservative movement is a far larger and more credible force than was the Liberty League -- even as its alarm at Obama’s “socialism” echoes that once hurled at FDR.

Countless changes have rendered the U.S. a very different country from the one in which Roosevelt bashed “economic royalists” and won re-election by a landslide. During the 1930s, few Americans invested in the stock market, only a minority paid income tax, and per-capita income was less than $500 a year. Some steelworkers walked to their mills barefoot, in order to conserve the one pair of work shoes they owned. In a nation where most citizens now consider themselves to be middle-class and where even most poor people own cell phones and televisions, one can’t be elected president by simply campaigning against Wall Street and the rich.

‘Nation’s Welfare’

What worked to FDR’s advantage was a political instinct that combined resentment against “organized money” with a deep compassion for ordinary people in trouble. On the radio and in person, he sought to console Americans as well as to educate them about how a particular policy that increased federal power would aid the great majority and not enhance the privileges accorded to any single class or interest group.

During the 1936 campaign, Roosevelt spoke to a group of North Dakota farmers afraid the government would force them to leave their drought-ruined lands.

“I (have) a hunch that you people (have) your chins up,” he told them, “that you are not looking forward to the day when the country would be depopulated. I say you are not licked.” In November, he carried that traditionally Republican state with almost three-fifths of the popular vote.

Later, when public doubts about the growing federal deficit gave Republicans an edge, FDR was able to recover his momentum by setting forth his policies for job creation in simple, emotional terms.

“I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people and that I have been given their trust,” he said in a Fireside Chat in April 1938. “I try not to forget that what really counts at the bottom of it all is that the men and women willing to work can have a decent job, not for today nor tomorrow alone, but as far ahead as they can see.” The government had to spend, he explained, “to help our system of private enterprise to function again.”

The one-time assistant Navy secretary concluded his talk with a maritime metaphor: “To abandon our purpose of building a greater, a more stable and a more tolerant America, would be to miss the tide and perhaps to miss the port. I propose to sail ahead. For to reach a port, we must sail, not lie at anchor; sail, not drift.”

Empathizer in Chief

Obama probably can’t remake himself into the empathizer-in-chief. It certainly wouldn’t help to echo such quaint, if poetic, language. Nor does this president need to welcome the hatred of his enemies in order to point out that they neither represent the opinions of most Americans nor have effective solutions to what ails the society. On Tuesday in a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, Obama tried to strike such a balance, invoking some Roooseveltian themes (FDR’s as well as TR’s), while also claiming support from American business elites such as Andy Grove and Warren Buffett. “This isn’t about class warfare,” he said. “This is about the nation’s welfare.”

The wealthy and well-connected can and will help themselves. What the rest of the population needs is a president who unmistakably takes the side of everybody else.

(Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University and co-editor of Dissent magazine, is the author of “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this article: Michael Kazin at mk8@georgetown.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net