FDR’s State of the Union Advice

If Franklin Roosevelt were still alive, I wonder what advice he would give President Obama for his first State of the Union address on Wednesday.

On January 11, 1944, just six months before D-Day, Roosevelt made his 11th State of the Union address. In it he said the nation’s founding principles based on “inalienable rights” no longer applied. He also said the United States needed a second Bill of Rights, an Economic Bill of Rights:

“This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.”

In his latest book, We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future, Matthew Spalding of The Heritage Foundation points out that Roosevelt used the past tense “were” in describing our inalienable rights recognized at the founding.

Roosevelt believed it was time for the role of government to evolve from protecting to providing. In the old model, man received his rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness from his Creator, and the role of government was to secure these rights. Under the new progressive model, government would create new rights and provide them to its citizens … a social salvation messiah of sorts. Among the many new rights Roosevelt envisioned was “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.” Earlier in his presidency he considered supporting the Wagner National Health Care Act of 1939 but backed off due to a conservative surge in the 1938 mid-term elections.

So what advice would the 32nd president have for the 44th president? Remember, progressive philosophy does have a strong pragmatic element. Perhaps FDR would tell Obama to retreat temporarily and make plans for a smaller, more realistic battle for healthcare reform. This would be consistent with progressive philosophy: retreat and evolve with the times while ignoring the anachronistic U.S. Constitution.

But I wonder if FDR would now recognize the inconsistency of his thinking and offer President Obama a different strategy. In his 1944 speech, the patrician president said, “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”

Is that true? Can individual freedom, economic security, and independence coexist? Roosevelt proposed eight economic rights to be included in his second Bill of Rights. The federal government, of course, would be the source of these rights—rights that would produce economic security. Would these rights bring about independence? Certainly not—they would lead millions to a life of dependence on the government. What about individual freedom? Again, certainly not. The federal government would determine the economic outcomes of these new rights.

Maybe FDR would counsel the young progressive by saying, “President Obama, many of the policies I desired have been implemented. They have failed, trapped people in a cycle of poverty, and brought the nation to the edge of bankruptcy. Your progressive agenda will lead to further danger. Save your presidency by doing the right thing for the American people: Abandon the philosophy of government as the source of the people’s rights. Secure their inalienable rights given by the Creator. That’s what they truly want and they will support you.”