Working with Roosevelt

In an effort to learn more about the magic of presidential power and style, I came across a book last summer which deserves real attention again, more than 50 years after it was published in 1952 by Harpers & Co. Written by Samuel I. Rosenman, who had been the chief speech writer and advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) from the mid-1920s,Working with Roosevelt is the most intimate and granular retelling of FDR’s skills, methods and inside life I have ever read.

Why do I share this reference with you now? The answer is that while obviously FDR and Barack Obama are two very different people, they encountered very similar problems on becoming president and they went about selling their programs to their Congresses and the American people quite differently. I think understanding those differences can help all Americans, including Obama, better understand what is going on today and what might be done about it.

Empathy: While FDR was clearly a patrician full of “noblesse oblige,” he was also, as president, a man who knew and felt pain every day as a result of his polio. Consequently, he was transmitting in every way an appreciation of the population’s pain at the time. Obama came from a completely different background, which surely equips him to understand and feel pain of other similarly situated people, but he also appears to be a cool clinician as he dispassionately dissects people’s pain with the result that he gets far too little credit for understanding and truly sympathizing. Clinton bit his lower lip. Others have found various ways to transmit sympathy. Obama should be seeking advice from all kinds of people for help with this problem.

Dysfunctional Politics: For various reasons Republicans declared early on, after Obama became president, that their ONLY goal was to limit Obama to one term; they seem to have lost sight of the good of the country in the process. Obama has struggled with the Tea Party’s leverage over most Republicans. Because time and receding memories have blurred recognition of what FDR faced, many people recall that FDR had an easily compliant Congress. But, they forget about the role of the isolationist Southern Democrats, who were forever plaguing FDR with their very different views, particularly about international engagements. FDR kept trying one thing after another and he prevailed ultimately on virtually all his important goals. Obama appears to try to reason his way forward, but even good reasoning has failed him, except in a few notable cases like health care.

Exposure: FDR was, as all presidents are, the prime focus of his days’ news. But he came before the days of TV and radio was not as ubiquitous or present as TV is today. Consequently, FDR was well exposed, but not overexposed, and therefore when he spoke, people listened. Today with TV, radio and the internet it is hard for a President not to be overexposed; consequently, despite Obama’s excellent speaking style, he seems to have begun to lose his audience. He needs to review how FDR did his fireside chats. They were relatively infrequent; they each had a very clear and focused purpose; and FDR sought and took advice from many quarters, including playwrights, about how to connect to the people, who eagerly assembled all over the country in their kitchens to hear what he had to say.

Style: FDR had a good sense of humor and used it frequently to his immense advantage. In his first fireside chat he recalled the fisherman from Maine who had sought advice on his hearing and was told to cut back on his drinking; when later asked why he had kept on drinking his answer was, “I liked what I was drinking so much better than what I was hearing (from FDR) that I just kept on drinking.” People still remember that line today! FDR also used metaphor to great advantage. For example, when he was struggling to convince the isolationists in 1939 to back Lend Lease, one of Sam Rosenman’s colleagues suggested using the story of the man whose house was on fire seeking to borrow his neighbor’s garden hose if he promised to return it after the fire was out. It worked and the Congress passed his innovative way to help England before it was too late. Obama delivers clear, simple, lawyer-like arguments, which are largely right, but which have all the impact of an air kiss. Perhaps he could reach out to non economists, non lawyers and folks who make their living simply getting peoples’ attention.

Keeping Things Simple: FDR never hesitated to explain complex subjects, in perhaps oversimplified ways, to ensure that his “common men” understood him so they would be comfortable backing him. Obama seems to shy away from anything resembling oversimplification, perhaps for fear of dumbing things down. The result is that he is flying way over the heads of a lot of his audiences. That needs serious work.

Now, if you think you do not need or want to read Rosenman’s book, you are wrong. You will learn a lot more than I have attempted to present here AND you will have a grand read by a master speechwriter/presidential advisor. The book is available through Amazon. Go for it — my best read of the year!


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