Sunday, February 12, 2012

Advice also for Aquino

by: Denis Murphy
February 12, 2012

(June 24, 2009) advising newly elected President Barack Obama to follow the priorities of America’s Depression era President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Whether Obama followed the advice or not, the readers can judge for themselves. May I suggest that the advice Clinton offered Obama may also be of use to President Aquino.

At the beginning of the article, Clinton talks of the bond Roosevelt created between the ordinary working men and women and himself.

“My grandfather was a dirt farmer with only a sixth-grade education. During the Depression, he eked out a living selling blocks of ice. But in those days, even though he was poor, he knew someone special: from listening to the fireside chats on the radio, he knew Franklin Roosevelt. And he believed that Roosevelt knew what his life was like – and cared about it too.

“I grew up listening to my grandfather’s tales of what it was like to live through the Depression and the war and what Roosevelt meant to him. When I was President, in another time of change and uncertainty, I often looked at the portrait of FDR in the Roosevelt Room and remembered my grandfather’s stories. Roosevelt had a deep personal connection to ordinary citizens.”

When Roosevelt died in 1945, ordinary people in tears lined the railroad tracks that led back to his home in Hyde Park, New York to watch the train carrying his body pass by.

I have only one personal memory of President Roosevelt. On a cold and overcast day many years ago in the Bronx, we were playing in the Church schoolyard when someone shouted, “The President’s coming down the Concourse (the main road of the Bronx).” We ran up the hill just in time to see the flashing lights of motorcycles and police cars coming toward us. Franklin D. Roosevelt had been our president all our lives, but we had never seen him. We heard cheering, but it rose and fell in a strange way. The car came slowly because the president was campaigning. Then it was in front of us. We pushed toward the car and had a good look at the old man inside. He looked much older than his pictures in the papers or newsreels. His face was drawn and gray and he sat back in the chair like a man on his sick bed, all alone in the back seat of the limousine. We waved and shouted. He seemed to see our group and he waved at us. Even as young boys we knew he was dying. People had grown silent along the way when they saw how sick he looked.

Clinton claims Roosevelt “got the big things right.” When he came into office during the Depression, he saw that the ills of the country could not be addressed without more aggressive involvement by the government. He ran for president as a fiscal conservative, promising to balance the budget. But unlike his predecessor, he quickly realized that, with prices collapsing and unemployment exploding, only the federal government could step into the breach and restart the economy.

Clinton recalls that Roosevelt surrounded himself with brilliant people, people who may have been far smarter than he was himself. He quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes to remind us that sheer intellectual brilliance is not everything: “Roosevelt had a second-class mind, but a first-class temperament.” This gave Roosevelt, Clinton says, the power to inspire others with his passion and to form a team that could work together.

Finally, according to Clinton, Roosevelt had the confidence to give up on projects that weren’t working, admit his failure and begin in another direction. He believed in experimentation, but he didn’t deny the evidence of failure when it came in. A president, claims Clinton, needs an appetite for experimentation and the determination to keep what works and scrap what doesn’t.

Do these suggestions of Bill Clinton have some usefulness for President Aquino?

Can and should President Aquino follow Roosevelt’s example and bond closely with the ordinary poor and middle-class people of the country? Should he build his political power base, as Roosevelt did, on this union of ordinary people and the president? Is there any other firm foundation for President Aquino on which to build? Will the poor and middle-class support give him the ability to make the basic reforms needed in the country? Will such a union allow him to escape from the limitations of our elite-dominated bureaucracy?

Has President Aquino decided on all the “big things” that must be done in his term of office? It’s clear he wants to eliminate corruption. What else are his goals? After corruption, what are the next three crucial things that need to be done?

Has the present government experimented sufficiently with new solutions? Have we taken a fresh look at old problems in the hope of finding new workable solutions? Perhaps we should be more creative. There are no magic formulas, but new situations call for at least a look at new solutions.

Finally, does the President have the most qualified and unified staff possible? Even ordinary people now talk about political skirmishes inside the administration’s top people. This isn’t supposed to happen in a presidential system of government where the President is free to choose the staff he wants.
Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the White House in 1933 which was a grim time for his country.

Unemployment had reached 33 percent. Hoovervilles, the settlements of the poor and unemployed were, like our urban poor areas, growing everywhere. They were named scornfully after former President Herbert Hoover. Farmers like the Jody family of “Grapes of Wrath” lost their land to bad weather and venal banks. A popular song of the day was “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” Roosevelt’s portrait is fittingly on the dime coin now as if to remind us he gave the poor what they most needed, that is, his comradeship.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates.

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