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Roosevelt, Obama, and Fear

Economic crisis met both Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama at the front door of the White House. Roosevelt was preceded in office by Herbert Hoover, who was opposed to having the government borrow money for use in job creation and who refused to give food to hungry, unemployed Americans. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, shared Hoover's attitudes about helping the poor, as did the Republican base that supported Bush. Private charities -- not the government -- were the proper dispensers of relief, according to both Hoover and Bush.

When Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, he delivered his famous line about "fear itself," but immediately afterward he said something not so famous but still true over seventy-five years later: he referred to the "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Roosevelt did not mean the terror people felt over lost jobs, lost savings, and lost homes -- that terror was certainly justified. He meant the terror that arises when people are faced with impending change. It is part of human nature to relax in familiarity and to become anxious when faced with change. But that natural anxiety can build into an "unreasoning terror."

The change that Roosevelt knew would bring terror to the hearts of his opponents was the New Deal -- a box full of economic and social reforms tied up with a ribbon of re-regulation. The New Deal policies were criticized and challenged throughout Roosevelt's presidency, and they are being criticized and challenged now, as they are compared to President Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The ARRA -- which was signed into law on February 17, 2009 -- is Obama's box of reforms and re-regulatory policies. It is often called the Stimulus Bill. Like the New Deal, it has been met with criticism, either for allocating too much money to recovery or for not allocating enough.

The ARRA has also met with Roosevelt's "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror." Opponents of the bill have cried "Socialism!" -- a word that has lost much of its power now that most people living in the United States are too young to remember when socialism was the Marxist precursor to communism, which was the most feared condition imaginable. In fact, many of the reforms outlined in the ARRA already exist in parts of Europe and are now considered progressive, not socialist.

In Roosevelt's time, critics of the New Deal believed that its far-reaching government programs would erode personal freedoms and states' rights. What happened instead was that many of those programs, such as Social Security, became accepted and expected components of American life. Obama's critics -- among them Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal -- have declared that the Stimulus Bill extends federal government control too far into their state realms. As of mid-March, 2009, both governors have stated that they will refuse Stimulus Bill funds designed to provide relief to their citizens in areas such as education and health care, claiming that the funds will provide temporary relief that the states will be expected to continue -- using state funds.

Palin and Jindal and those who say that Obama's stimulus is simply a "spending bill" are missing the big picture. As the Washington Post reported on March 14, 2009, National Economic Council Director Lawrence H. Summers defended ARRA provisions for health care, energy, and education, stating that such legislation would help "assure that the coming expansion will be more sustainable . . .". Both the New Deal and the ARRA came about as responses to situations in which things fell apart because they were unsustainable. When a house made of twigs falls apart, the wise man does not cower in fear. He builds a new house with bricks, even if he has to borrow the money to buy them. In the long run, he'll save because the brick house won't be so easily blown down.

Now, as in 1933, let us not allow fear to block progress. Let us not allow that "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror" of "socialism," of national health care, of truly helping the poor in the name of ending poverty, and of changing our longstanding energy production methods keep us from embracing the undeniably necessary bold action that this truly unsustainable situation demands.

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