Comparing Barack Obama to Franklin D. Roosevelt

Jan 8, 2009Updated 8 months ago

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd U.S. president
Since his presidential election victory, many within media have jumped to compare Barack Obama with former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, thanks to the poor economic climates each has faced during their leadership terms.

Such comparisons regarding the challenges the American economy has presented to Obama and FDR are not only convenient to make, but perhaps even a bit justified, remarked Dr. Kristine McCusker, an associate professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University, in a jan. 11, 2009, radio interview on WMOT-FM with Tennessee-based broadcaster Gina Logue.

Barack Obama and Franklin D. Roosevelt: Media-Savvy Democrats

"Obama, in some ways, is a new FDR in that he’s got that eloquent way of speaking,” McCusker said during the on-air interview via the National Public Radio affiliate. “He’s able to use new media in really profound ways. In Obama’s case, it’s electronic media, particularly e-mail. In FDR’s case, (it was) the use of radio and his ability to speak directly to his constituents (during weekly Fireside Chats).”

Such Obama/FDR comparisons, McCusker said, are fueled, at least in part, by unemployment statistics and Americans’ recession fears.

“During the Great Depression, the national unemployment rate was 25 percent,” observed McCusker, who compared this number against the country’s November 2008 unemployment rate of 6.7 percent. “In heavy industrial centers like Chicago, Cincinnati (and) Detroit, (the unemployment rate) was 50 percent,” she noted. “(And) in some industrial centers in Ohio, it was 80 percent.”

The Great Depression versus Recession: U.S. Presidents Face Differing U.S. Economies

TIME Magazine, on its Nov. 24, 2008, cover, depicted Obama’s face, with a beaming smile, on Roosevelt’s body. Inside the publication, a related article cited experts who declared the current U.S. economy as being the nation’s worst since the Great Depression. Referencing that cover, McCusker—whose research areas of expertise center on the Great Depression and World War II, said its depiction should be viewed with a critical eye, since the current economic woes the country now faces don’t compare equally to those faced by Roosevelt.

Additionally, in FDR’s day, she explained, the idea that the U.S. government could step into the economic fray of the depressed economy and provide what was hoped to be a far-reaching impact was nothing ever experienced in this country. The mere notion, in fact, was not only controversial, but even radical to many.

FDR's New Deal Created Public Works Programs, Helped Ease U.S. Unemployment

According to McCusker, such a move by the government to take a deep, hands-on action to help turn the nation’s sinking economy around was unprecedented. After all, Roosevelt’s successors, Republicans Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding, “wanted to have so little federal government that, if it closed down, nobody noticed, and the main place most people saw the federal government was at the post office and only there.”

Furthermore, when Roosevelt embraced British economist John Maynard Keynes’ philosophy that the government’s share of gross domestic product should increase in dire economic circumstances, all prior paradigms for Americans’ relationship with federal authority were shattered, McCusker suggested, and public works programs were created to provide jobs.

President-Elect Obama's 'First 100 Days' Already Have Begun, Says Historian

Not unlike FDR, Obama has also proposed public works programs to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and create jobs. However, McCusker said, the key difference is that FDR’s New Deal created new economies where none previously existed, while Obama’s proposed “shovel-ready” fix-em-up jobs constitute a short-term solution by comparison.

“(Roosevelt presidency's public works programs.

Moreover, the way McCusker sees it, Obama’s "first 100 days in office" actually began Nov. 5, 2008, the day after he sealed the election, and began moving his hand-picked transition team into place.

As for whether the FDR/Obama comparisons will endure, when it comes to the president-elect, the lasting lessons related to FDR’s New Deal will be how, and whether, Obama seeks out a new, innovative and workable, philosophy for the country to cling to—and one that takes the global economy into consideration.

  • Note: Dr. Kristine McCusker’s full interview with Gina Logue, host of the public-affairs show MTSU On the Record, may be via a podcast version of the WMOT-FM program by accessing and clicking on "January 11, 2009" at the top of the page.

Personal communication, Gina K. Logue, Jan. 8, 2009.

McCusker, Kristine. Taped interview on Dec. 8, 2008, with Gina Logue, host of MTSU on the Record. Interview contents used with permission of Logue, McCusker, WMOT and MTSU.

TIME Magazine, Nov. 24, 2008, cover. Accessed Jan. 8, 2008, at,16641,20081124,00.html