FDR’s grandson has advice for Obama

Frank Roosevelt, the grandson of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is an economics professor at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers. Roosevelt, who was 6 when his grandfather died in office, has advice for President-elect Barack Obama: “He needs to take action.”
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Written by Jorge Fitz-Gibbon, The Journal News (White Plains, NY), Jun 3, 2010

NEW YORK – Frank Roosevelt thinks his famous grandfather could be an example to Barack Obama-starting with FDR’s mistakes.

Roosevelt, an economics professor at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers and the 32nd president’s grandson, said Obama should throw more money at the fractured economy than FDR ever did during the New Deal.

He said Obama should do something his grandfather wouldn’t do 76 years ago – embrace the deficit-spending theories of economist John Maynard Keynes.

“FDR never did get the Keynesian thing, and therefore the whole New Deal effort was not big enough,” said Roosevelt, 70. “I mean, it didn’t get us out of the Depression, really, until World War II came along, and then government spending really got big enough to really employ everybody and then some.”

On the eve of his historic ascension to the presidency, Obama has increasingly been measured by the standard set by Franklin Delano Roosevelt – a leap not everyone is willing to make.

Roosevelt proudly welcomes the comparisons, but did caution Obama to view FDR as a history lesson as much as a role model.

“He needs to take action,” he said. “But I don’t think he needs to do 15 different things, because FDR was just sort of flailing about, and they were trying this and trying that. They were in the right direction, but he had no theoretical knowledge that we have now.”

Inspiring leaders

Roosevelt was 6 when his grandfather died in office. A Yale-educated economist, Roosevelt has been on the Sarah Lawrence faculty since 1977. He is an Obama supporter who contributed to the Illinois senator’s presidential campaign and his inauguration fund.

He sees some of his grandfather in the president-elect.

“I think their personalities are both calm, steady, intelligent, and hopeful people,” Roosevelt said. “Hopefully, Obama will inspire the nation, and I think he’s going to do something like the fireside chats, although using the Internet now and YouTube.”

And there are other similarities between the 1932 and 2008 presidential races, said Ralph Stein, a constitutional law professor at Pace Law School in White Plains.

“The outgoing presidents in both cases represent viewpoints that have been largely repudiated by the electorate,” Stein said. “And in both instances, there’s an economic crisis that has galvanized the country, and a belief that a new administration can make things a lot better.”

But Stein also said the comparisons were being exaggerated.

“The first 100 days of the FDR administration were actually conservative in this regard: The country was sliding very rapidly towards what could have been significant disunion,” he said. “And what he did is he stabilized the country through his measures, that there was a future.”

“And I think we don’t have that kind of attitude today,” Stein said. “I think the majority of people believe that the transition is to a more stable economic platform and that Obama will do that.”

‘Shallow’ comparison
Political consultant Hank Sheinkopf went so far as to call the comparisons “shallow.” He said the America that Roosevelt inherited in 1933 was in much deeper crisis and had yet to become the world-leading power it is today.

“We are in a crisis, but we’re not in a depression. We do not have bread lines on the streets,” he said. “The social scene and the economic world are entirely different today than the world in which Roosevelt operated.”

Roosevelt agrees on the differences in the economies each man inherited. Unemployment hit 25 percent in the 1930s, while it has not even hit double-digits today. He also said the economy had hit bottom by the time FDR was sworn in, while economists suggest that the worst is yet to come in the current recession.

He said Obama is also more of a centrist than this grandfather was. FDR inspired significantly more hatred from critics who saw the New Deal as a dangerous experiment in socialism. “I’ve actually had experiences of very conservative Republicans being quite nasty to me just because they hated FDR,” Roosevelt said. “People who were on the right felt that
government, whatever it did, was evil. Government was the boogie man.”

‘Go for broke
But Roosevelt’s biggest gripe with his grandfather is that he didn’t spend enough to jump-start the economy. He is among the modern-day economists who espouse Keynesian thinking. In short, Keynes believed that public investment funded by deliberate government deficits was the best remedy for a faltering economy, rather than relying on private-sector forces that he believed were unreliable because they were motivated by self-interest.

It’s a lesson Roosevelt said his grandfather never learned. FDR even sparked a new economic downturn in 1937 by attempting to balance the budget – a historical blip that Roosevelt wrote a paper on while studying at Yale.

Now, Roosevelt said, he hopes the nation’s soon-to-be 44th president will heed the lesson.
“I think Obama has to learn from that and forget about balancing the budget,” Roosevelt said. “Spend, spend, spend until we’ve done enough to stop this decline.”

“So if I could talk with him, I would say, ‘Go for broke,'” he said. “Literally, go for broke.”