Alter: What Obama Can Learn from FDR's Dodge

Americans are scared and eager for change. They elect the Democratic presidential candidate by a healthy margin, in part because they prefer his temperament. But the outcome is, to most, largely a rejection of the brutal status quo. Every day brings more depressing economic news, with banks teetering and foreclosures skyrocketing. During the transition, the outgoing president tries to rope the new man into the crisis—but the president-elect keeps his distance. The country has only one president at a time, he says, telling aides that he doesn't want responsibility without authority.

Abraham Lincoln is Barack Obama's favorite president, but it's no wonder he's reading up on Franklin D. Roosevelt. The similarities between 1932–33 and 2008–09 are eerie. And the basic questions during the transition are the same today as they were 76 years ago: How low will the economy sink? Is it better for the incoming president to pitch in with the outgoing administration to forestall disaster—or hang loose? What's the best way to plan for the early weeks after the Inauguration?

Of course, the economy was worse then. Unemployment was 25 percent, compared with 6.5 percent today; the stock market was down 90 percent, not the 40-plus percent of 2008. Unlike Obama, FDR defeated an incumbent, Herbert Hoover, and the bitterness between them (to the point that they were shouting at each other on the eve of the Inauguration) was far greater than the enmity between Obama and President Bush.

The sequencing of the crisis is also different. In the early 1930s the economy collapsed first, setting off a banking crisis. Today it's a banking crisis that might precipitate an economic collapse. Where Hoover launched a modest intervention in the economy called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson are investing taxpayer money much more heavily. But in both cases, Republican presidents refused to directly help Americans who were losing their homes. Their Democratic successors took a different view of the American social contract.

Like Obama in Chicago, FDR was in a serious mood on the night of his election. "I'm just afraid I may not have the strength to do the job," he told his son, who was helping the paralyzed president-elect into bed. "Pray for me, Jimmy." But FDR was so eager to take office that he briefly concocted a scheme whereby Hoover would appoint him secretary of state, then Hoover would resign along with his vice president, Charles Curtis. This would allow Roosevelt to be president immediately instead of waiting four long months until March 4, the date of the Inaugural in those days. (After 1933 it was changed to Jan. 20.) The gambit went nowhere.

Both FDR and Obama had mothers who raised them to be confident and secure, vital traits in a president. Just as Obama was smart enough to avoid Bush's offer of a budget and trade deal, FDR wouldn't let himself get pulled into a crisis in late 1932 when European nations refused to pay back their World War I loans. Hoover, who had a higher IQ than FDR but none of his charm, was so disgusted by Roosevelt's cavalier attitude toward the debt crisis that he declined to be photographed with him. "I have too much respect for myself," he told an aide.

Hoover wanted FDR to join him in reasserting faith in the old-time conservative philosophy—support for a balanced budget and a stable currency through the gold standard. Had he done so, Hoover confided to a friend, FDR would "have repudiated two thirds of the so-called New Deal."

To avoid being co-opted, and because he felt like taking a vacation (as usual, without Eleanor), Roosevelt spent 12 critical days during the transition aboard Vincent Astor's yacht, selecting top cabinet members in coded ship-to-shore messages. Roosevelt made decisions more impulsively than Obama. "I like the cut of his jib!" he said of Harold Ickes, who was hired five minutes after meeting FDR for the first time. He mixed progressive Republicans like Ickes with conservative Democrats and liberal New Dealers, but stiffed his biggest rival, Al Smith.

After barely escaping assassination when he disembarked in Miami, Roosevelt received an urgent letter from Hoover telling him that a banking crisis that began with bad car loans in Detroit was threatening to melt down the financial system of the United States. FDR still refused to be drawn in. To run out the clock, he ignored the letter and later fibbed to Hoover that his secretary had lost it. Today, of course, FDR's cat-and-mouse game would have been on "Hardball" by 5 p.m.

FDR rightly figured that Hoover had the power to close the banks without his cooperation, but not the guts. If the economy slipped lower still, allowing him to enter stage left as the hero, that was fine with Roosevelt. He'd make the tough decisions when he got to office. Today's Detroit crisis poses a similar challenge to Obama. Should he step in now, or pick through the wreckage of the auto industry after he takes the oath? If he follows the Roosevelt example, he'll choose the latter, more confident course.

Roosevelt's first Inaugural in 1933 is remembered for the line "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." This was actually a bit of inspired nonsense; if you're worried about putting food on the table, that's a fear of something more than fear itself. Instead, FDR's more important line was "action and action now." He used the word "act" or "action" six times in the speech.

It's not a coincidence that in his interview with "60 Minutes," Obama also stressed the importance of immediate action. And he made reference to experimenting with different policies, an echo of FDR's 1932 speech—ghosted by a reporter—in which he said: "The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly"—a novel concept in the Bush era—"and try another. But above all, try something." This became the watchword of the New Deal.

Obama's government is likely to be less improvisational than Roosevelt's. The head of FDR's Brain Trust, Ray Moley, once quipped that to say the New Deal was the result of a plan was like saying that a boy's bedroom strewn with used chemistry sets and old pennants had been arranged by an interior decorator.

In today's instant-gratification culture, Obama will have a much harder time meeting expectations than FDR, who merely had to show some marginal improvement in economic conditions to win big Democratic victories in Congress in 1934 and a landslide re-election in 1936. The Depression didn't end until six years after he took office, with the onset of World War II. While Obama has managed to exceed expectations in the past, he won't have the luxury of a slow recovery.

But like Roosevelt, the new president will get public credit if he moves aggressively to restore confidence. The details of the legislation in the first 100 days were less important than the sense of forward movement against the Depression and the sight of the president winning approval of 15 bills in three and a half months. Whatever happens in the first 100 days next year, Obama will need to be seen putting points on the board with splashy bill-signing ceremonies throughout 2009.

The way to win on Capitol Hill is to combine an inside game with an outside game. Roosevelt cleverly withheld 60,000 patronage jobs until Congress approved his early legislation. Obama's selection of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff is partly related to the fact that dozens of members of Congress owe their jobs to Emanuel's successful efforts to win back the House for Democrats in 2006.

As for the outside game, FDR knew during the transition that he could use the new medium of his day, radio, to rally the country. Obama already knows that he can be inspirational on TV but that he won't fully succeed in transforming America unless he exploits the new medium of our day, the Internet, to ignite an era of civic action. We've already had the first fireside Web chat. For all Obama's promise, it somehow sounded better on the wireless.