You hear a lot of moaning about how terrible things are in the United States now, but consider the situation 75 years ago this week when Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in as president and delivered his stirring "only thing we have to fear is fear itself" Inaugural Address. Unemployment in Toledo, Ohio, was 80 percent. Today, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton trying to feel Toledo's pain, unemployment there is 6.4 percent. The winter of 1933 marked the bottom of the Great Depression. Today, despite the news from Wall Street, we're not even sure if we're in a recession. Millions of people in those days wanted a dictator. When our new president takes the oath next year, we'll be satisfied with someone who just gets a few things done.
Or will we? The 2008 presidential campaign has featured rising expectations of real change, especially if Obama makes it all the way. It's not too early to begin to think about what, exactly, this change would mean. How would we define it? How would Obama execute it? Two years from now, will we know if we've achieved it?
Crisis makes change easier. With the U.S. financial system in meltdown, FDR's bipartisan bank-rescue plan passed the House on a voice vote with its provisions scrawled on a napkin. But it's a myth that the overwhelmingly Democratic Congress rubber-stamped Roosevelt's 15 major legislative initiatives during his First Hundred Days. Most of those New Deal bills were substantially amended. When he launched Social Security in 1935, many New Dealers thought it was badly watered-down.
Obama tries to prepare his audiences for disappointment. "Change won't be easy," he says repeatedly, explaining exactly how special interests have spent many millions buying Congress. Without a big victory in November that pulls in five or six new Democratic senators (FDR picked up 12 in 1932), it's hard to see how he would get much of his agenda through. Even a landslide guarantees nothing. The Republican minority leaders, Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. John Boehner, don't seem likely to catch Obama fever any time soon.
Then there's the budget. Obama admits that with baby boomers set to retire, "we should have been storing our nuts for winter" and "we can't build our future based on a credit card issued by the Bank of China." But he hasn't yet conceded that rolling back President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy and slowly reducing the $12 billion a month we're spending in Iraq just won't generate enough revenue to pay for all of his ambitious domestic agenda. Obama may find that the biggest changes he brings are less legislative than attitudinal, by, say, repairing America's image in the world and convincing the African-American community that it must do more to solve its own problems.
Even so, Obama's got a few assets in the Washington change game that have gone underappreciated. The first is that he's a senator. Comfortable with dominating their state legislatures, governors-turned-presidents often neglect congressional relations. (FDR and Ronald Reagan were rare exceptions.) Obama was smart enough to hire former majority leader Tom Daschle's well-regarded staffers, who would likely follow him into the White House. He's not in John McCain's league in working across the aisle, but he has cultivated some important relationships.
For instance, archconservative Sen. Tom Coburn routinely puts a "hold" on dozens of bills (yes, a single senator can obstruct the whole process). He put one on a bill cosponsored by Obama and GOP Sen. Richard Lugar to clean up dangerous conventional weapons scattered across the former Soviet Union. According to Lugar's office, it was only Obama's unlikely friendship with Coburn that persuaded the Oklahoman to lift his hold and allow the bill to become law. The two senators from opposite sides of the spectrum go out to dinner (along with their wives) and clown around in the cloakroom, with Obama teasing Coburn that he can muss his hair, but Coburn can't muss back. Deploying this kind of charm might seem trivial, but it's an important reason FDR and Reagan got so much through.
Another Obama advantage is that he's showing signs of a quality ascribed to Roosevelt—"longheadedness." Behind their enigmatic smiles, longheaded politicians look farther downfield than most. In Obama's case, that means that the onetime community organizer is likely to apply to congressional votes the same meticulous planning he's using to win caucus states. To that end, he has already prioritized his presidency, with ending the war, reforming health care and beginning the transition to a prosperous "green economy" as the big three changes he wants to be judged on.
All the planning in the world is worthless if a president can't inspire and excite the American people. In researching a book on FDR, I learned that on March 4, 1933, a woman brought along four handkerchiefs to an Inaugural reception, one for each of her children, so that after shaking hands with the new president she could wipe her hand on each hankie and thereby preserve traces of her hero's sweat for each child. That sounds like some of the delirium I've seen at Obama events. If it continues, he could bring a lot more change than the cynics think.