Influential FDR Address to Congress in 1938 Provides a Guiding Light to Obama and Occupy Wall Street Almost a Century Later



Obama and FDR

As angry citizens gather in various cities as a part of the Occupy Movement and the country constantly changes around us, it is occasionally still possible to utilize words by past Presidents that still seem to apply. Typically, these are domestic policy speeches addressing social and economic issues since foreign policy can change at a rapid pace with a continually changing dynamic. But in America, certain social issues are as prominent today as they were when this country was founded. Stability and security are what many sought when this country was founded; even if this meant sacrificing it temporarily for the Revolution.

Now, one may take the stability and security offered to United States citizens for granted. Some would disagree, but there are those that look to the government to help them procure these needs. So it is understandable that when the entire nation is facing a crisis many citizens in the U.S. will look to the current President for a solution and a plan. As the Executive Branch has evolved, the president is seen more and more as the source for inspiration when the nation is wounded. But in the beginning of his second term, when the country was still deep in the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt the need to rally Congress. On April 29, 1938, he addressed Congress on the need to curb monopolies entitled Message to Congress on Curbing Monopolies.

As the country’s economy grew rapidly during the 19th Century, interstate commerce became a hot issue and there was much debate as to whether or not the Federal Government has the authority under the Constitution to regulate these trades. What Roosevelt needed to do was frame the problem before Congress in a way that showed the original authors could not foresee this problem; but yet, at the same time, the impact it has on the quality of life for Americans gives the federal government the ability to do something about it. This Constitutional issue was not addressed directly during this speech, but likely weighed on the mind of the president and those of Congress.

Additionally, it was important that he did not appear too radical and communicated his respect for our current economic system. He was not seeking to use his position to bring drastic changes that suited his own political philosophy; he just wanted to do his job. The country was in a dire state and had been for quite a while. He saw a problem in concentrated wealth and economic power and the toll it took on citizens on the lower end of the economic spectrum that had no hand in the economy outside of their local community. While these citizens lacked power in the economy, many of them had the right to vote and they chose Roosevelt a second time to make these kinds of changes. The powerful New Deal Coalition, as his legions of supporters were called, was in full force and in the process of changing the trajectory of the Democratic Party and the country as a whole. This momentum continued until the 1960s and was only interrupted by the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a president which it is not uncommon to hear even Democrats speak highly of to this day.

The line that Roosevelt toed in 1938 is almost identical Franklin D. Roosevelt - Speech to Congressto the line President Barack Obama must toe to this day. In fact, the parallels are almost staggering. They both needed to convince Congress to take drastic short term steps to repair a damaged economy; but yet felt a responsibility to ensure it could not happen again. Despite the claims of some of their political opponents, neither of these Presidents sought to take advantage of a nation in despair in order to instill their own political doctrine on the country a la Joseph Stalin. These were presidents that were willing to stake their reputations on new changes based on the fruits of our country’s strong Academia presence. The solutions they offered did not come from their “gut”; they come from the minds of think tanks and scholars. They were tasked with being the middle man and needed to sell these programs to Congress and the public.

Another strong parallel is that President Obama faced a similarly hostile Congress as Roosevelt did. The Democrats had just lost 71 House seats and 6 Senate seats in the 1938 election. Despite Democrats having a majority in both Houses during the first half of Obama’s term, many of them were desperately clinging to their elected seats and dealing with a historically hostile electorate. Also, many of the Democrat’s numbers in the House circa 2008 were members of the conservative Blue Dog caucus that narrowly won their seats in traditionally red districts and swing districts in the 2006 mid-term elections. Unlike in 1938, most bills in the Senate now require a filibuster-proof 60 votes to pass. Democrats had this many only if you count Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, who caucuses with Democrats. Based on his voting record before and since then, it would be foolish to do so.

Further, they faced skepticism from those that insist that existing regulation is either suitable or too much already. Roosevelt addressed these concerns about existing regulation, such as the Sherman Act, by insisting that the game has changed and a refresh of the rules were in order. Capitalism did not fail; we just failed to keep it in check. It is vital that a president not undermine the existing economic system and cause uncertainty in the markets. President Obama was conscious of this by keeping the previous administration’s Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, in office and assigning various conservatives to his cabinet and economic team. Additionally, he opted to keep Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, for another term in 2010(it is worth noting that this is the product of the Banking Act of 1935, enacted by the Roosevelt administration).

Roosevelt made an effort not to demonize the individuals involved in the markets. This would be counter-productive for his efforts. He did not seek to punish anyone; he only sought new rules so that the playing field could be level again and accommodating to new competition. His understanding of Economics and negative externalities was exhibited in this following passage with a hint of Existentialism:

Government can deal and should deal with blindly selfish men. But that is a comparatively small part—the easier part-of our problem. The larger, more important and more difficult part of our problem is to deal with men who are not selfish and who are good citizens, but who cannot see the social and economic consequences of their actions in a modern economically interdependent community. They fail to grasp the significance of some of our most vital social and economic problems because they see them only in the light of their own personal experience and not in perspective with the experience of other men and other industries. They, therefore, fail to see these problems for the nation as a whole. (Roosevelt)

Now that many of his efforts have since been repealed or watered down by Congress and successive presidents, such as the Glass-Steagall Act, these words are just as true today as they were when he first spoke them.

Once he adequately framed the issue and briefed Congress on the data and statistics he began to lay out a list of suggestions and ideas that could be utilized to mitigate the issue of monopolies in the country. This included: reforming existing anti-trust regulations, stronger scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission when approving mergers, the establishment of investment trusts, reforming patent law to prevent its abuse in keeping competition out of markets (an agenda President Obama also pursued and achieved with the America Invents Act in 2011), tax collectives, trade associations, and the creation of the Bureau of Industrial Economics.

In hindsight, the war in Europe and the attack on Pearl Harbor distracted greatly from the agenda Roosevelt had in mind for his second term. He also had a much tougher time getting bills through Congress in his second term than he did in his first. Minimum wage law is among only a handful of his domestic agenda items that were enacted during this period.

A large majority of this speech could easily be given today and would likely be championed by members of the current Occupy Wall Street Protests. He was careful not to undermine the current system, yet effectively noted its flaws citing actual statistical data. There is no doubt in my mind that President Obama’s speech writers were furiously researching Roosevelt speeches when seeking to address the economic turmoil late in his 2008 campaign and early into his presidency as the jobless rates grew. Much like President Obama following the 2010 mid-term elections, Roosevelt needed to get these new members of Congress on the same page as he was.


Read the speech here: Message to Congress on Curbing Monopolies – FDR

Roosevelt, Franklin D. “Message to Congress on Curbing Monopolies.” U.S. Capital, Washington, D.C. 29 Apr. 1938. Speech.

Obama as FDR Political Cartoon