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

Frontline troops push for solar energy
The U.S. Marines are testing renewable energy technologies like solar to reduce costs and casualties associated with fossil fuels. Play
25 Best Places to find rich singles
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Moneybags? Hunt down the perfect mate in these wealthy cities, which are brimming with unattached professionals. More
Fun festivals: Twins to mustard to pirates!
You'll see double in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Ketchup lovers should beware in Middleton, WI. Here's some of the best and strangest town festivals. Play
Overnight Avg Rate Latest Change Last Week
30 yr fixed4.29%4.30%
15 yr fixed3.23%3.29%
5/1 ARM3.33%3.45%
30 yr refi4.26%4.27%
15 yr refi3.20%3.26%
Rate data provided
by Bankrate.com
View rates in your area
 
Find personalized rates:
Company Price Change % Change
Frontier Communicati... 6.79 0.85 14.31%
Windstream Holdings ... 11.83 1.30 12.35%
AT&T Inc 36.59 0.94 2.64%
CenturyLink Inc 39.90 2.19 5.81%
Bank of America Corp... 15.34 -0.16 -1.03%
Data as of 4:03pm ET
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 16,912.11 -70.48 -0.42%
Nasdaq 4,442.70 -2.21 -0.05%
S&P 500 1,969.95 -8.96 -0.45%
Treasuries 2.46 -0.03 -1.16%
Data as of 9:18pm ET

Sections

McDonald's may be liable for worker lawsuits, not just franchisees, in a government ruling that could change the fast-food business. More

Amgen is the latest to continue corporate America's cost cutting strategy, even as the economy is supposedly on the mend More

Bunch o Balloons allows multiple water balloons to be filled at once. Parents are loving it -- to the tune of $645,000. More

Steve Mason, a pastor from California, inherited more than $100,000 in student loan debt when his 27-year-old daughter died suddenly in 2009. With interest and late penalties, the debt has since ballooned to $200,000. More

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.