Nothing Else Seems Like Too Big a Problem: Sketching an Obama Newest Deal Worthy of a Roosevelt

The following interview was conducted in November 13, 2008, part of a series of discussions called “44,” with people of varied background about their reactions to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. This interview was with Victoria Harrison, PhD, an adjunct instructor of United States and Western Civilization history, with an emphasis on 19th century African-American history, at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville since 1992.

My first memory is from when I was about two or three. My Dad’s looking at the television, and he is very upset.

He’s sitting there and he’s got on jeans, a white t-shirt, and cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve, as they did back then. He’s looking at this guy on television, and as a child I can feel my Dad is upset, and that guy on the TV is making my dad upset!And that was John Kennedy. He was watching the Cuban Missile Crisis, and my dad thought he was going to be fighting Russians.

From there I became a newshound from the earliest age. I watched the news, watched Walter Cronkite every night, sitting on the floor. Because I had a television in my room I could watch what I wanted to, and I watched the 1968 fallout. The entire year: President Johnson, at the end of March, said he wasn’t going to run, and then Dr. King’s assassination shortly after in April. Bobby’s assassination in June. The 1968 Democratic convention. I watched all that, but in the meantime there were race riots and unrest on college campuses. Disarray.

So here I was, watching African-Americans being mistreated, and being raised around, uh, crackers, basically—and this was here, in southern Illinois, where I grew up. My dad’s family was from Tennessee. They were poor whites from Tennessee, and so they were racist. And my dad was, God rest his soul. In his last years he very much mellowed, but it wasn’t that was until the end.

What caused him to change his view?

I think it was just age and maturity. And also my brother’s wife had a sister who had been married to an African-American. They had two children. One dad they were all over at my parents’ house—which would have been unthinkable many years ago—and I remember giving my dad a bit of a look as I walked into the house. He said, “Did you ever think you’d see the day little mulatto children would be running around my house?” I had to say no, but he did change over time. And that was good, but he was a product of his upbringing and racism of his time.

And this is why I’m excited about the election of Obama: the hope that we’ve really moved on. That Vietnam is really over—that the Vietnam War is finally, finally over. And those that went and served can stop being mad. The protesters too. Because that’s part of the backstory of what we’ve had with the Clintons and Bushes. Especially with John Kerry four years ago, and the swift boat guys or whatever the hell they were, having no bearing on the problems and concerns of Americans today. Except that it worked, four years ago. So something drastic has occurred. Barack was a child during this time, so it’s hopeful we can finally get past it.

But I don’t believe we are post-racial. And I don’t think you can put that on the back of one person. It is hopeful, but almost too hopeful—you have to worry about realities. He is one person with a limited amount of time.

I’m channeling my inner Charlie Rose at the moment: take me back to the election night and your reflections on it.

Oh, I love Charlie Rose! It was at the point of Pennsylvania’s returns, when it came in for Barack, and also Ohio, at which I said, “This is it. Oh gosh, he’s done it!” Because there was no way then for McCain to overcome the electoral college. I had been obsessed with the electoral landscape, checking sites like Politico and Slate multiple times a day, so I had a pretty good idea of what it was going to take. And I was lucky enough to not have to teach the next day, so I could indulge myself.

What does Barack Obama bring at his moment in our history?

How rarely in the all last decades have we had the fortune to have someone who can remind us that we are all Americans? It’s that feeling that a lot of people had on Tuesday night. Even if you don’t agree with him, or even for people who didn’t vote for him. There’s something that he touched, our—I don’t want to say soul—but it’s very rare that someone can access our American identity to pull us together. And he’s done that.

The person that I think had the same chance was Robert Kennedy. Robert Kennedy inspired that kind of hopefulness and touched what we’re talking about with Barack. Think how different things would have been if Robert Kennedy had been elected. If Nixon hadn’t been elected and if Vietnam had continues as it did, the trajectory of our nation might have been so different.

                           Robert Kennedy speaking in Indianapolis, April 4, 1968

We got a taste of what Bobby Kennedy might have offered the night of King’s assassination, when speaking eloquently to an anxious crowd.

Right, in Indianapolis. And he said, “For those of you who are filled with anger, I lost someone in my family too.” It’s a human thing. I think that is the kind of inspiration that people did want. And want now—a new opportunity to get rid of what we’ve been putting up with for the last eight years. And not just George, but also Bill before him, you know? Just please, move forward.

If that was the “then,” what is the “now?”

The “now” is peril and opportunity, simultaneously. Terrible economic peril, terrible international and national security perils. But also opportunity. Look, everything is connected; everything has been compartmentalized because of our differences and name-calling, and these things. If you can take someone with a clean blackboard to see anew how it is all related.

We have problems with the auto industry. Part of the problem with the industry is that it costs consumers thousands of dollars extra to buy a car because they provide health insurance to their workers. And we have a broader problem with health insurance itself. But the auto industry makes cars that many people do not want to buy, because they are not fuel-efficient. Alright. So we’ve got energy policy, health care policy, and industry policy that intersects. And you’d think people with a blank chalkboard could work out something that addresses all three issues for the benefit of all.

If someone says we can’t address health care because the economy trumps it, in actuality it’s all one in the same, then.

It is to me. It’s all interrelated. If you have someone now with the opportunity, but also the vision to approach these number of problems holistically.

What personal attributes does Obama have that will serve him well, and what deficiencies will he need to draw on from others?

He has incredible personal skills. Everything that I’ve learned about him describes him as very deliberative in his decision making. We’re so used to admiring guys that can shoot from the hip, and all this stuff. And he’s not that, thankfully. In my book I like more deliberative people. He’s more intellectual. I mean, hell, he was a constitutional law professor. He’s got some game, alright?

If he’s got that ability, that intellect, and that discipline I think we’ve seen already the way he approaches problems. For the places he lacks personal experience I think he’ll bring those that have it in.

                           Time cover for November 24, 2008, with Team Obama “Ready to Roll”

I think we’ve seen that already, with the posse standing behind him after the economics summit. You’ve got all those people—Warren Buffet!—that act like a brain trust. Time magazine, I saw on Morning Joe this morning, has Barack Obama on its cover in a convertible 1930s car as Franklin Roosevelt. And it’s the “New New Deal.”

One of the things in which he can emulate FDR is pragmatism. Despite John McCain calling Obama a socialist, I think Obama is going to have to be pragmatic. Let’s try this approach, right, and if it doesn’t work—like FDR—you throw it away and start trying again. And I do think it will be that way. I don’t think he is ideological. There will be no, “I will do this because it is based on a set of principles from which I will not veer.”

Looking at some of the New Deal policies, a lot if it fell somewhere between creative pragmatism and radical for the times. What controversies might we then be in store for?

Farm allotments under the Agricultural Adjustment Act were radical, and also it’s one of the programs we actually still have going.

There’s a parallel to today the Republican era of the 1920s. The farmers then were in terrible, terrible shape. They fell into great debt during World War I because they were trying to feed more people, which required more land. And then the war ended! The bottom fell out, and all through the Twenties the farmers were in the tank—a decade before the Crash. The McNairy-Haugen Farm Relief Bill were proposals to to help farmers out, to prop up their prices [attempted in 1924, 1926, 1927, and 1928]. They kept getting vetoed because Calvin Coolidge said it was, “vicious and preposterous to prop up farm prices”—it was un-American. In 1933, though, FDR comes in does exactly that! And it was controversial even then.

And that’s why, now, the Right is going to scream. That’s also why Obama really needs to bring in Republicans, and get the smartest people he possibly can. We have intractable problems, so let’s get the smartest people. Use them. Exploit their ability. This whole idea, of rejecting an idea because it’s not yours, to hell with that. Obama’s got some room right now because people are giving him the benefit of the doubt. Now, some people are also going to scream no matter what he does.

I like the FDR analogy. They’ve already talked about the importance of keeping the public informed, talking to them, as in the old fireside chats: here’s the problem, here’s what we’re going to do. The banks were the subject of FDR’s first chat. They had shut down all the banks, reorganized those that could be saved, and got rid of the rest. Ended the run on the banks, all that It’s a Wonderful Lifestuff. Then FDR went on radio and said, “Monday morning the banks are going to open, and when they do it’s okay. You can put your money back in the bank.” And people did! People did on his word. People believed him; they were hopeful, and that alone helped out the banks.

I hope that Obama is bold enough. I’ve seen him, from my perspective, be too cautious. And too unwilling. And perhaps that was because it was a campaign. I mean, you can’t do anything if you can’t get elected. So there’s maybe a lot of things that you should say, if you were honest, that you don’t say.

I don’t remember the question a reported once posed to him, but it was an artful dodge. Because the answer was hard; the answer was honestly difficult. The real answer was, “No, people aren’t going to be able to spend more than they earn.” Something a long that line. But it was something that needed to be said—you know, let’s be honest. No more of all that, we’ve had enough of that.

Turning back to the automotive industry, I was listening to a discussion on NPR, and they were discussing labor contracts as “the stick” with the manufacturers. Foreign auto makers operating in the American South are no losing their shirts, They are doing well, comparably, to Michigan. Those Southern plants have health care, all that, but they are not unionized. The work rules are very different. The suggestion was, if government money—taxpayer’s money— is given to General Motors, would it be possible for us to sit down with the union guys—minus the management that would be gone—to take over as the owners and begin to make cars people will buy. If we’re going to bail you out. But it goes beyond that to healthcare and further on.

But I think this is the moment we have, because of Obama, that the union guys can go to the table and him say, “Let’s do this not merely for the survival of the industry, but maybe of the country. You can, in this moment, make some concessions for the better.” And I think Obama has the stature and the charisma to do something like this.

Beyond policy and ideology, leadership styles can be crucial. And, again to FDR, I am reminded of the Bonus Army that marched on Washington, D.C.. Hoover sent troops led by Douglas MacArthur, which was a disaster. And Roosevelt sent his wife, who was received much more warmly by the veterans.

Yes, tanks with mounted machine guns. MacArthur exceeded his orders. He had been told to not chase them across Anticosti Island. But he did. Hoover was led to believe—and MacArthur said—that the group was dangerous. That is had been infiltrated by Commies and revolutionaries. Now, keep in mind these were World War I veterans and their families. They had been “infiltrated” by Commies, so they had to disperse them.

                           Bonus Marchers confront police officers in Washington, D.C., 1932

Look at the reactions. One is of fear and distrust. The other is humanity and respect and hopefulness. This might sound partisan, but maybe it is, but look at the Republican campaign this year. It was about fear, was about Obama being a socialist. It was fear-mongering and distrust. And Obama said no to all that.

Of course there have been hopeful Republican messages and messengers, one no brighter in recent memory than Ronald Reagan’s “It’s morning in America.” The low sun in Obama’s campaign symbol hearkens back to the same metaphor. Hopefulness, to be clear, is not owned by either party, but by a sense of humanity.

Everyone likes to respond to positive messages. But no matter what there has to be meat on the bones; there has to be policy that is forward-looking and presented in a positive way. In the example of Ronald Reagan, he wanted to cut taxes and address inflation. And in fact he did all of that, but they did it by taking a hatchet to the social services budget, firing Pat Coe, and everything else he did, like busting unions.

Alright, so there was policy there, but the policy there, but the policy was presented in a way that said, “Hey, we’re going to move forward.” He was a likable guy, so it wasn’t just sunny with nothing to it. There was policy there. Policy that was presented in its best light, not highlighted by its negative aspects. And a president is going to present the negatives as fleeting and the positives as long-term. It’s all a matter of presentation.

And I was around for the Reagan years, I was there. It wasn’t that great, but the memory of Republicans hold them as golden years. And I was too liberal for that, even back then. But it was an era of “I’ve got mine, go get yours. If you don’t have yours then there’s something wrong with you.”

I liked what you said about “forward-thinking” Republicans. This sometimes seems like a misnomer, even proudly held, by conservative platform. We are so used to the modern William F. Buckley-ized version, standing “athwart history, yelling Stop!”, with feet firmly planted as roots, possibly attempting to turn back the clock to better days, with changes viewed with skepticism. So I’m intrigued by this dichotomy.

Theodore Roosevelt said the true conservative looks to the future. If you want to prepare for the future then preserve and take with you the best of your ideas, but above all else be good stewards of the nation. And even Roosevelt was quite mixed. He was very conservative and militaristic, such as using the army for strike breakers. Yet in the coal strike of 1902 he tried to bring the mine owners and their workers together. The price of coal had gone up 800% due to the strike, and winter was approaching. The mine owners would not talk, and Roosevelt was livid. He told the owners, threatened them, that “You will deal or I’ll send out the army. Not to break the strike but to disposes you of your mines. I’m going to nationalize your mines.” Everyone freaks out at this plan, and one of his aides said, “Mr. President, I don’t think the Constitution will allow you to.” Reportedly, in a book by either Edmund Morris or Nathan Miller, the president grabbed the aide by the lapels and said, “The Constitution is for the people, not the people for the Constitution.” So Roosevelt was a conservative, but he was a steward of the nation. The nation comes first. But it was inconceivable—that a Republican would threaten to take private property?

And our coal mines of 2008 are large lending firms.

That’s what I wanted to get to. This is why the campaign cries of socialism and the name-calling negativity fell flat to most American ears. The could see right in front of them that we were already nationalizing banks with $700 billion dollars of our money. Our money to bail out private interests. Socialism? They’re going to call Barack a socialist? And that’s why the label didn’t stick; the economy is already mixed. Something FDR did and Barack will most likely do in these tough times is jettison those kinds of ideological blinders. He’s going to what works. If that means more deficit spending—which nobody really wants—or buying some of the banks, then that’s what you’ve got to do.

We bailed out the Savings & Loans in the Eighties. They paid it back, and we actually made money. With the New Deal, you know that it didn’t end the Depression. World War II ended it.

There was even an economic relapse in 1937 when Roosevelt tried to reign in some of his programs.

Right. They had spent so much money that the budget was out of balance, so they started to raise taxes and attempted to balance the budget a little more. Start to tighten up spending. Then everything went down and he got blamed for that.

There were problems beyond this. The two biggest programs were found to be unconstitutional: the NRA and the AAA. Obama will be—according to our mere speculations—perhaps bold, experimental, and innovative. But that gets us back to where we started.

Why are we putting projections on him? Why are we saying he’s the author of the newest New Deal on the cover of Time? Yet there has never been this kind of excitement before, in a time we have very little else to be excited about.

Iraq? It’s better than it was—seven years later. Afghanistan’s worse. Pakistan is scarier than hell, and they’ve got nukes. The economy is in the tank. The health care system is broken. The educational system is broken. My niece is teaching ninth-graders in Troy, and she has students that don’t know what I noun is. Ninth-graders. Then there’s infrastructure, buildings falling rivers. Inability to deal with natural disasters like Katrina.

But… look at the hopefulness of the country. Where does that come from? You ask about displacement and projection. It is because of and for him. And I’m a patriot and I love my country. What I am saying is, if there were even another Democrat, wouldn’t it be different? Let’s pick Hillary: broke the glass ceiling and so on—do you think the country would feel the same, even though it’s a woman? A woman that is also breaking down a barrier? Can you see the country in the same emotional state? I can’t. And why? Because some might rightly see it as a return of the Clinton years. And wider than that, if she won we would have had a Bush, Clinton, Bush Clinton!

Let’s strip away the politician from Obama and talk about the person.

I think he’s funny.

Funny? I hadn’t heard that yet.

I do. I think he’s funny. If you saw his first press conference as president-elect he talked about the new dog they’re getting for the girls. And so he was asked about the dog, and he said he’d get “a mutt like me.” But the funny part was that he was dead-pan serious: “Well, on that matter we’re going to have to consider the criteria…” while he was building towards the punchline. I like his seriousness, but also is someone who can have fun.

Put this into perspective. What other presidents have come into office with such a task. Is it only Lincoln and FDR?

Yeah, I think so. And every president has problems, but to have them at this magnitude is rare. Lincoln was a one-term Congressman from Illinois. And all he had going for him was his determination not to give into the South. That was all. And he didn’t, which every president up to that time had.

FDR is interesting. He was a fortunate son, wealthy guy, with incredible empathy for the less fortunate. Which probably was a function of the polio. He said, “When you lay in bed for a year trying to wiggle your toe nothing else seems like big a problem.”

A great quote from someone during the Depression about FDR is “He’s probably the only president who’s ever known my boss is a sonofabitch.”

Yes, exactly. Even Herbert Hoover said that the problem with capitalists is they’re too greedy.

And that’s a commerce secretary saying it.

***For more oral history interviews concerning the 2008 election of Barack Obama, click here:

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