What would FDR do? A Roosevelt speculates

fdr.gi.top.jpgFranklin Delano Roosevelt By Betsy Feldman, contributor


FORTUNE -- Despite the fact that just about everyone has an opinion on it, the jury's out on whether President Obama is a latter day Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Curtis Roosevelt, FDR's oldest living descendant, has his own opinions on the debate, and some advice for the sitting President. As a child, Roosevelt had a unique vantage point: he lived in or frequently visited the White House from age three to fifteen, during his grandfather's administration. He witnessed the Great Depression firsthand, and he even recalls seeing a Hooverville before learning the alphabet.

(For more, read a recent speech by Curtis Roosevelt on lessons from FDR)

Roosevelt is retired from the United Nations, where he held various positions over the course of his career. Today, he is "on tour," giving talks all over the world, at venues like the Cosmos Club in Washington D.C. While he avoids comparing the presidents' personalities, he does point out the similarities and differences of the two administrations.

It has been widely noted that FDR and Obama faced similar economic environments upon entering the White House -- bank crises, faltering stock market, and trade disputes, to name a few examples. While FDR's arrival at the White House came during a much more bleak time -- unemployment neared 25%, versus 9.6% today -- comparisons are frequently made about the two economies and the legislative choices to stimulate them.

Fight back

But the similar circumstances facing the two administrations go beyond the economy. In particular, the younger Roosevelt points to Republican opposition, outspoken demagogues, and a business community that needed attention. These groups aided in setting two very similar stages for FDR and Obama.

In response to the critics, Roosevelt says that Obama should be as confrontational as FDR was, especially given his stated desire to be non-partisan. "He needs to pick a few enemies and have a go at them," says Roosevelt. "I think FDR did very well in his confrontation with the financial community in diffusing the anger." Obama, he says, should speak to the same type of anger emanating from the business and financial communities today.

Like Obama, FDR was fortunate enough to have a Democratic majority in Congress to expedite legislation being passed. But Roosevelt remembers his grandfather keeping close watch on his legislation, giving leadership to Democratic Party majority figures in Congress, and taking a strong stand against his opposition - something he wishes Obama would do more.

Accept that non-partisanship won't work

While the Republican opposition was substantially reduced in number in the 1930s, it was still very involved in trying to improve the nation's problems, something Roosevelt says is lacking in recent times. New Deal legislation was often passed by very few votes. (Sounds familiar, right?) He regards this as an effective challenge to the Democratic majority of the time.

Today, in contrast, he sees Republicans "just going down the road saying no to Obama." This, he says, is based on the theory that the more they can say no to him, the less he will accomplish, and the more they can point to him as an unsuccessful President. This tactic is not illogical to be sure, but Roosevelt finds it to be a destructive one. "How can we function as a democracy if we don't have the party in opposition as part of the game?"

Obama could do more to address this, Roosevelt says. "He does not attack the Republican National Committee as I think he could and should."

It seems as if the Tea Party has instead opted to be part of this game, but Roosevelt has not seen a natural leader emerge to lead the crowd, if it were to become an official political party. In contrast, he thinks it might have been more feasible for the demagogues of FDR's time (such as Senator Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin) to form a third party, had they chosen to join forces.

Communicate better with an angry public

In tandem with the growth of the Tea Party, Roosevelt has noted a parallel growth in anger over a troubled financial community, something that is certainly not new. At the Democratic National convention in 1936, FDR spoke directly to that anger, arguing, "These economic royalists complain that we (the Democrats) seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power."

Obama, however, has neglected to confront today's version of this anger, and Roosevelt feels that the President's sympathy toward the American people is not being translated clearly enough.

"That is going to be a difference in the November midterm election, compared to the November election for FDR: the American people do not get the message that President Obama is really with them at a feeling-level. And that I think is a shame because his speeches indicate that to me, but it's not getting across." To top of page