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Hillary Clinton's FDR moment

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on Inauguration Day, March 4, 1933, in Washington, DC.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on Inauguration Day, March 4, 1933, in Washington, DC.
FDR Library

When Hillary Rodham Clinton gathers her supporters at Four Freedoms Park on New York's Roosevelt Island for a campaign kickoff rally Saturday, the president she will identify herself with won't be her husband, Bill Clinton, or either of the presidents who appointed her to posts in their administrations, Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter. Instead, she will reach back through the generations to the Democrat who wins the highest marks from political scientists, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

It was in January 1941, with Axis powers spreading across the globe, that Roosevelt, clutching the sides of the lectern at the front of the House chamber, enunciated his vision for a "world founded on four essential freedoms" — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. He also warned against using America's assistance for its allies as an excuse for sacrificing the very things "worth fighting for" at home.

His list of universal values, which included equality of opportunity, jobs, and a rising standard of living, read like a Democratic platform for the ages — and, for the most part, like the platform Hillary Clinton wants to project to fellow Democrats. On Saturday, Clinton will try to wrap the cloak of FDR’s legacy around her own shoulders.

"She has long been inspired by FDR's belief that America is stronger when we summon the work and talents of all Americans," Kristina Schake, Clinton's deputy communications director, said. "Her fight, like his, is to work to ensure that everyday Americans can achieve not just a sense of economic stability, but prosperity."

It promises to be a moment replete with symbolism for a candidate who is trying to show that, like Roosevelt, she can be a crusader for common men, women, and children despite her enormous personal wealth; who sees America's strength at home as an essential component of its ability to lead abroad; and who is half of one of American history’s great power couples.

If Clinton breaks the glass ceiling of the presidency, she'll be standing on the shoulders of two Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor.

As a first lady who became a force on public policy in her own right, Clinton has often said she identifies with Eleanor Roosevelt, who advised her husband in office, drove the adoption of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and pushed for black civil rights. Now, Clinton is signaling that Franklin Roosevelt is the model for the type of president she wants to be: progressive at home, muscular abroad.


"What she is doing by going to that park, she’s identifying with the values of FDR. Those values are transcendent," said Richard Moe, the chief of staff to Vice President Walter Mondale and author of Roosevelt's Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War.

The question: Can HRC really channel FDR?

"This is the moment to do it"

The nation's shift toward economic populism — reflected in the increasingly influential anti-corporate strain of the Republican Party and the anti–Wall Street movement of the left — suggests that an embrace of Roosevelt is more politically palatable in 2016 than it would have been in recent elections.

In a New York Times poll released last week, 66 percent of adults said money and wealth should be more evenly distributed in the US, and 57 percent said the government should do more to reduce the gap, compared with 39 percent who said the government should not intervene.

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"If anyone is going to try to redeem the memory and legacy of FDR, this is the moment to do it," said Harvey Kaye, author of The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great and a supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. "This might be the moment for Hillary to preempt anyone to her left."

"She's a big-government person"

In the two months since she launched her campaign, Clinton has courted liberal constituencies with promises to end the "era of mass incarceration," enhance Obama's executive action on immigration, and expand voting rights. It's all part of a strategy based on calculations that she'll need to energize Democratic activists to win in swing states and that she can rally them without alienating independents.

Still, a small set of influential progressives, most notably Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, have refused to endorse Clinton as they try to push her to the left. Last month, Warren and de Blasio joined with Roosevelt Institute chief economist Joseph Stiglitz for the unveiling of his 115-page blueprint for "rewriting the rules" of the American economy to close income and wealth gaps.

Stiglitz is advising Clinton on economic policy, and her aides have met repeatedly with Roosevelt Institute scholars and staff, including at least one session since the release of the report, according to a person familiar with the discussions. Clinton isn't likely to detail a New Deal for the 21st century during her speech on Saturday. Senior campaign officials said she will roll out specific policies over the summer, and it seems unlikely, at a time of deficits and mounting debt, that Clinton would propose anything nearing the scope of Roosevelt's domestic agenda. But there can be little question that she is looking for ways to link her campaign to ideas and policies grounded in the values of the Roosevelt era.

It’s been a long time since a Democratic presidential candidate pushed the FDR parallel. When he was running for president, Obama praised Ronald Reagan as a visionary and used endorsements by Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy to cast himself as an heir to Camelot. Similarly, in 1992, Bill Clinton, far younger than his rival, President George H. W. Bush, emphasized his connection to President Kennedy, most memorably through a photograph of a young Clinton meeting JFK.

They both ran at a time when Roosevelt’s government-centered progressivism was in retreat. And there's some risk for Clinton if she gets too far out in front of voters' appetite for solutions that come from government.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, which advocates for smaller government and lower taxes, said it is politically savvy for Clinton to connect with Roosevelt's New Deal, rather than President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, because "the New Deal was seen as pro-middle class in a way that the Great Society was seen as welfare."

But, he said, there should be no confusion about Clinton's view of government's role in society.

"Hillary is a statist. There isn't any place, including the Iraq War, that she doesn't want more government," he said. "She's a big-government person."

Wait and see

Forgive progressives who remain skeptical of Clinton's embrace of Roosevelt. After all, it was Bill Clinton who used his own 1996 State of the Union address — 55 years after Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech — to declare, "The era of big government is over." More recently, Obama rejected calls from progressives to use the financial crisis as the justification for a second New Deal.

Former Congressman Brad Miller, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute who was a leading liberal voice on the Dodd-Frank overhaul of the financial regulatory system, said Clinton's effort to cast herself in the mold of Roosevelt is encouraging but not enough to convince progressives who have been disappointed before.

"It puts her and the Democratic Party in touch with our historic mission, our historic position of being the champion of everyday Americans," Miller said. "Part of the problem on the left, including me, [is] we have many times talked to policymakers who have said, 'We are with you 100 percent,' and then not done it."

The ties that bind?

Both Republicans and progressive Democrats have said Clinton will have difficulty presenting herself as a champion for the have-nots because of her wealth and her close personal, political, and financial ties to the nation's elite. That was an effective knock on the last two Republican presidential nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain, the former of whom was building a car elevator at one home and the latter of whom couldn't say how many houses (eight) he owned at the time.

Together, the Clintons pulled down $25 million in paid speeches over a 16-month period ending in April, according to a personal financial disclosure Hillary Clinton filed in May. Much of the money came from companies that have business before the federal government, including some that lobbied the State Department when she was secretary. And even as she runs as a campaign-finance reformer, Clinton's fundraising calendar reads like a who's who of the well-heeled and politically connected.

Her Republican adversaries say she's a hypocrite on income inequality. Sanders has said Clinton's wealth is "a problem." And Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote that the optics are bad for Clinton.

That's why the reach for Roosevelt is so important to the narrative of her campaign, said two Clinton advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. Roosevelt was wealthy, but he created programs that employed Americans by the thousands during the Great Depression, enacted Social Security, regulated the financial sector, backed labor in its push for stronger workplace standards, pressed corporations to spend on the war effort, and accelerated desegregation through an executive order banning the federal government and its contractors from discriminating in the hiring of defense workers. Clinton advisers say the comparisons to Romney and McCain fall short because her policy preferences aren't designed to help the rich.

Still, many Democrats worry about Clinton's affinity for Wall Street banks and major US corporations. As secretary of state, she was an unapologetic advocate for, and promoter of, American businesses abroad. Her husband's support of the North American Free Trade Agreement still sticks in the craw of organized labor, and many progressives are anxiously waiting to hear whether she will endorse or reject the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal that she helped advance as a member of Obama's Cabinet and which they argue will kill jobs in the US.

Clinton sidled up to labor when she called in to a conference of fast-food workers on Saturday, which could indicate that she wants to support unions or that she is about to disappoint them.

"All of you should not have to march in the streets to get a living wage, but thank you for marching in the streets to get that living wage," she told them. "We need you out there leading the fight against those who would rip away Americans' right to organize, to collective bargaining, to fair pay."

The Eleanor thread

Allida Black was sitting in a coffee shop when she received an email informing her that Clinton would hold her kickoff rally at Four Freedoms Park.

"I just stood up and did a whoop and shot my fist in the air," said Black, a co-founder of the now-defunct Ready for Hillary Super PAC who was editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers and has written educational materials for the park. "It’s perfect."

When Clinton arrived in the White House in 1993, Eleanor Roosevelt was the only example of a first lady who had become a political figure in her own right after working as a publicly visible partner in her husband's presidency. Clinton kept a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt in her White House office, which helped her when she was "looking for comfort" during trying times.

"The example she set as a fearless first lady and a courageous fighter for human rights inspired and fortified me," Clinton wrote in Hard Choices.

On a policy level, the strongest thread connecting Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton is a shared commitment to global human rights. After her husband's death, Eleanor Roosevelt led the drafting committee for the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is striking in its adoption of many of the tenets of the US Constitution and many of the values Franklin Roosevelt sought to promote. Clinton emphasized human rights both as first lady and as secretary of state, most famously in bookend speeches in 1995 and 2011 that equated women's rights and LGBT rights with human rights.

The two women also are bound by the vitriol they inspired in their adversaries. Eleanor Roosevelt has one of the largest files on record with the FBI, which tracked her supposed connections to communism, and for nearly a quarter of a century Clinton has been the favorite target of Republican politicians and talk radio hosts.

"There is no one who understands the courage Eleanor had, the determination she had, and the intense flak she got for her vision better than Hillary," Black said.

The hawk they love

For two generations, the Democratic base has been reflexively wary of war. That's the legacy of two wars of choice: Vietnam and Iraq. Johnson's pursuit of the war in Vietnam turned liberal Democrats so hard against him that he chose not to seek reelection in 1968. Clinton's support of the Iraq War provided Obama the opening he needed for a real contrast and paved the way for his victory in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

While she may be moving left on domestic policy, Clinton has shown no signs of backing off her longstanding support for using the threat of force — and actual force — as a major tool of foreign policy. If she can credibly cast that worldview in the shadow of Roosevelt's call for the defense of the Four Freedoms — rather than in the more haphazard frames of Vietnam and Iraq — she'll have done herself an invaluable favor in appealing not just to Democratic voters but also, perhaps, to the Republican-tilting voters who remember the Greatest Generation.

Roosevelt, who led the nation into World War II, was no dove.

He saw a powerful connection between America's strength at home and its position as a global leader. He said as much at the conclusion of his 1944 State of the Union address, when he outlined a proposed "Second Bill of Rights" that would, among other things, guarantee housing, health care, and education to Americans regardless of race.

"America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens," Roosevelt said. "For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world."

Clinton has echoed that sentiment.

"We have to continue to advance American values, which correspond with universal values. I'm always reminding my counterparts that when I talk about freedom of expression, freedom of religion, those are not just American values. The world agreed to those values back in the declaration, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," she said in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations just before stepping down as secretary of state. "We're going to stand up for them. And it's not always easy, and we have to pick our times. We can't be shortsighted or counterproductive, but we're going to continue to stand up for them."

"The fight within them"

In the early stages of her campaign, Clinton has sought to convey to voters that she is fighting for them, not for herself. She has said she wants to be a champion for "everyday Americans."

Kaye, the University of Wisconsin Green Bay professor who wrote The Fight for the Four Freedoms, said Roosevelt's strength was in inspiring others as much as in taking up their causes. Clinton's ability to do that, he said, will be the measure of whether she can live up to Roosevelt.

"Is she prepared not only to talk about what she will do for us, but to mobilize Americans and encourage the fight within them?" he asked.

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