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Craven: How To Move A Nation

03/24/10 5:55PM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) Recently, filmmaker and commentator Jay Craven had a chance to see Emmy winning actor Ed Asner playing President Franklin Roosevelt.  And it got him thinking about Roosevelt, his era and politics today.

(CRAVEN)  I was raised by my grandparents, so I heard a lot about Roosevelt.  My granddad even worked in FDR's Agriculture Department.  But Ed Asner's performance caused me to read and reflect more about the man and his times.

Roosevelt confronted deep public fears and a crippling economic Depression.  He responded by reinventing government.  FDR hit the ground running as President, skipping post-inaugural festivities to slip upstairs into the Lincoln Study to swear in his Cabinet and start work.  

Roosevelt forged bi-partisan coalitions. During his first hundred days, he moved Congress to raise farm income; provide first-ever direct support to the unemployed, and establish the Civilian Conservation Corps that put 3 million people to work.   He passed banking reforms, stock market regulation, and mortgage relief for beleaguered homeowners.  He established the Tennessee Valley power authority and mandated the reorganization and rehabilitation of the railroads.  And he ended Prohibition.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich recently cited a new poll reporting that today some 80% of Americans believe that - quote - "nothing can be accomplished" in Washington. 'This percentage is just as high among Democrats," wrote Rich, "many of whom admire the president but have a sinking sense of disillusionment about his ability to exercise power."

This suggests a troubling difference between Roosevelt's times and our own - a difference that this poll makes apparent.  Even with his recent health care victory, our current president still lacks anything close to FDR's ability to exercise power.

Roosevelt brokered significant Republican cooperation and, two days after his swearing in, Congressional Democrats consented to vote together as long as more than half of them agreed on a particular issue. Obama's party has been fractured while his opposition stands united in a near boycott of his initiatives.  

Roosevelt used the media extremely effectively. His fireside chats began a week after his swearing in - and immediately became the most listened to program on radio.  Today's president stands opposed by at least one TV news network and several hostile but hugely popular media personalities who don't just report news - they advocate public opposition.

When President Obama came to the White House, he had one important thing in common with Roosevelt - substantial popular support.  But this base shifted last summer when activists disrupted town hall meetings on health care and spawned a new conservative populism.

Recent Congressional votes on health care have finally redeemed Obama's year-long quest - and it may have expanded his capacity but it was achieved at great political cost, required many compromises, and the fight apparently continues.  The test will be to see what lies ahead.  Early comparisons between Obama and FDR were compelling, but the question now is: does Obama have a sufficient base of power to do what Roosevelt did-and move an entire nation?
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