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Biden Studies FDR's Presidential Transition For Guidance


As Joe Biden prepares to take office, he is referring back to one of his predecessors. One of Biden's final campaign stops in October was at the Georgia health retreat of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


JOE BIDEN: This place represented a way forward, a way of restoration, of resilience, of healing.

INSKEEP: FDR took office in the Great Depression. And Biden offered a comparison earlier this month on CNN.


BIDEN: This is a little bit not unlike what happened in 1932. There is a fundamental change not only taking place here in the United States but around the world. We're in the middle of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where there's a real question of whether or not what will - all the changes in technology. Will there be middle class? What will people be doing? How do they - and there's genuine, genuine anxiety.

INSKEEP: Roosevelt spoke to similar anxieties when he was inaugurated in 1933.


PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: ...My fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the presidency, I will address them with a candor and a decision with the present situation of our people impels.

INSKEEP: Roosevelt's presidency is not so distant as it may seem. Biden was born while FDR was president. So was historian Robert Dallek, author of "Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life." Dallek says the parallels between then and now can be overdrawn, but there is a common thread - a president facing pressure to restore faith in democracy itself.

ROBERT DALLEK: Remember, in the early 1930s, you had a rising crescendo. Adolf Hitler in Germany, who was promising under the Nazis there would be a thousand-year Reich and that they were going to take care of the economic collapse that had infected all of Europe, as well as the United States and Asia. And, of course, Stalin's Russia in many ways had become a model for how to deal with economic difficulties because what you had in the Soviet Union was a state-controlled economy. And there was a lot of sentiment that maybe this is what the United States needed to do, to move on from democracy. But Roosevelt would never go there. He was a believer in democracy and in preserving it in the United States and making it seem again like the best future for the country.

INSKEEP: Did he have that as an explicit goal? Did he think about that throughout the 1930s when making decisions? I want not only to improve the economy but reinforce people's faith in democratic institutions.

DALLEK: He understood that fascism and Nazism and communism were rivals with the democratic system in the United States. And he was determined to show that democracy works and that it can outdo these other authoritarian systems. And, of course, what gives him such a commanding place in history is the fact that he was right and that he did save democracy. And then, of course, the ultimate struggle came with World War II, in which, of course, fascism and Nazism were overwhelmed, were destroyed.

INSKEEP: There were very powerful right-wing media in his time. Were the conservative media making principled conservative arguments against FDR or just making up conspiracy theories?

DALLEK: Both. But they were mainly talking about how Roosevelt was actually killing democracy and that he was setting up an authoritarian bureaucratic state with programs like the CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps, and the WPA and the PWA and all these alphabet agencies that came into existence under FDR to combat the Depression - the NYA, the National Youth Administration, which was compared to the way in which the Nazis were bringing young people into the Nazi Party.

INSKEEP: You are reminding me that some of FDR's programs were overturned by a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

DALLEK: Yes, they were. And, of course, that spurred Roosevelt to talk about, in 1937, the possibility of packing the Supreme Court, increasing the number of justices from nine, maybe to 15, in order to allow him to appoint six new justices who could then side with him and his New Deal. As it was, of course, it was a terribly unpopular idea because it was seen as an attack upon the country's checks and balances and the traditional system of maintaining democracy.

INSKEEP: Democracy limited even this powerful president in ways that we now see as both good and bad. He wanted to stay popular with a majority of voters. And majority rule in the 1930s meant bending to Southern segregationists. New Deal housing programs were segregated. When World War II began, Dallek writes, Roosevelt waited to enter, knowing that he needed a big majority of public support.

So we have a new president coming in. If your concern is preserving and strengthening democratic institutions and people's faith in those institutions, what are some principles for a president to follow based on history?

DALLEK: Well, he has to command the airwaves. They need to be able to communicate with the mass public in ways that are attractive to a majority of Americans. But I think Biden is a very storied and skilled politician. Whatever he proposes and however he moves forward, he has to be mindful of bringing the public along with him. And it's not so far removed from what Franklin Roosevelt faced.


ROOSEVELT: I, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, do solemnly swear...

DALLEK: He understood, as he said in his '33 inaugural address, the country demands action and action now.


ROOSEVELT: This nation is asking for action and action now.

DALLEK: And I think the same adage will be in the forefront of Joe Biden's mind.

INSKEEP: Robert Dallek, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

DALLEK: Well, thanks for having me on. Bye-bye.

INSKEEP: His 2017 book is "Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life."


Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.