Explainer in Chief: What Obama Can Learn from FDR

As President Obama gets set to speak to the nation this Thursday, he is receiving advice from all quarters on what he should say. The big question is, who will he listen to? But there is no doubt which president provides Obama with the best example of how to conduct a reelection campaign. It is Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1936 ran as the president Republicans loved to hate.

At the end of his first term, Roosevelt had a record he could point to with pride. Since 1932, national income had risen by more than 50 percent while unemployment had dropped by over a third. After four years the New Deal, nonetheless, had a long way to go, and FDR did not hesitate to say so. At the same time, Roosevelt was adamant that the Republican Party had no useful solutions to offer America in the midst of the Great Depression. Over and over during the 1936 campaign, Roosevelt took on the role of Explainer in Chief in order to emphasize the differences between himself and his opponents.

It is a role that no president in recent years has been more suited to than Barack Obama, and for that reason FDR?s 1936 campaign is especially relevant today. FDR?s words are not ones that Obama can use unchanged seventy-five years later, but his sentiments are.

As the following sampler from Roosevelt?s 1936 campaign shows, the defense that FDR made of his administration and its policies bears a striking resemblance to the one Obama will have to make to win reelection in 2012.

Commission and Omission in Government

?Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales.

?Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.?

Tax Equity

?You cannot promise tax relief for those who can afford to pay, and, at the same time, promise more of the taxpayers? money for those who are in need. You simply cannot make good on both promises at the same time.?

What Republicans Really Want

?Make no mistake about this: the Republican leadership is not against the way we have done the job. The Republican leadership is against the job being done.?

Good Government

?Starting in 1911, a Democratic leadership came into power, and with it a new philosophy of government….We did not look on government as something apart from the people. We thought of it as something to be used by the people for their own good.?

Political Amnesia

?Do I need to recall the powerful leaders of industry and banking who came to me in Washington in those early days of 1933 pleading to be saved??


?In the summer of 1933, a nice old gentleman wearing a silk hat fell off the end of a pier. He was unable to swim. A friend ran down the pier, dived overboard, and pulled him out; but the silk hat floated off with the tide. After the old gentleman had been revived, he was effusive in his thanks. He praised his friend for saving his life. Today, three years later, the old gentleman is berating his friend because the silk hat was lost.?

Being Hated

?We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace?business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

?They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

?Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me?and I welcome
their hatred.?

Government and Religion

?I want to make myself clear about those who disparage their fellow citizens on relief rolls. They say that those on relief are not merely jobless?that they are worthless. Their solution for the relief problem is to end relief?to purge the rolls by starvation. To use the language of the stock broker, our needy unemployed should be cared for when, as, and if some fairy godmother should happen on the scene.

?You and I will continue to refuse to accept this estimate of our unemployed fellow Americans. Your Government is still on the same side of the street with the Good Samaritan and not with those who pass by on the other side.?

Roosevelt won the 1936 campaign in a landslide victory over Alf Landon of Kansas, winning the popular vote 27,751,612 to 16,681,913 and carrying all but two states. But Roosevelt had to work hard for those votes. Obama, who has often felt besieged from the left and the right, can take heart in the fact that 80 percent of the nation?s newspapers endorsed Landon, as did most businessmen and most of Wall Street.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.