New Deal to Big Deal

What FDR's breakthrough can teach us about our post-racial future.

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Phot by Getty Images

Among the many plot twists in the 2008 campaign has been the return of Franklin Roosevelt as a political icon. After suffering years of disparagement as the architect of big government, the deepening economic crisis has given many Americans a new appreciation for the 32nd president. Advisers to President-elect Barack Obama are reportedly reading up on New Deal policy, and Time magazine recently featured Obama on the cover in a remake of the famous top-hat-and-cigarette-holder image of FDR.

There are obvious reasons for the comparison between Barack Obama and Franklin Roosevelt, not the least of which is the trying economic and military circumstances Obama will inherit. There are other connections between the two men: Both men owe their elections in part to unpopular Republican administrations accused of mishandling and underregulating the market. And both elections marked turning points in the political history of African Americans. FDR's New Deal broke the old GOP coalition by successfully attracting African Americans who had previously been loyal to the "party of Lincoln" for over a half century. Obama's selection as the first black president of the United States strengthened the fraying bonds between African Americans and Democrats for years if not decades to come.

There are odd parallels between their Republican predecessors—for instance, both of them were tied to the mishandling of national catastrophes: the Bush administration's ineptitude in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath was the biggest domestic failure in decades; Hoover, as Secretary of Commerce, oversaw the Mississippi Flood of 1927, where black sharecroppers were rounded up and forced at gunpoint to repair breached levees.

But the most-telling connection between Roosevelt and Obama may be one that we tend to overlook—their membership in groups that have historically suffered from discrimination. Roosevelt—stricken with polio at age 39 and eventually confined to a wheelchair—and Obama, the first African-American president, are tied together on the level of symbolism and metaphor.

At least since his victory in the Iowa caucuses, Barack Obama has been viewed as a harbinger of the post-racial society. Shortly after he won the general election, the Wall Street Journal said that his victory would end "the myth of racism as a barrier to achievement." It's easy to see why the post-racial idea gained traction. If millions of white Americans are willing to vote for a black presidential candidate, it makes you suspect that we really are beyond the race issue. But we aren't, at least not yet, and Roosevelt's experience as the first disabled president can shed light on this moment.

Disability and blackness were understood in surprisingly similar ways in American history; both as physical markers of difference and inferiority. In the 19th century, skin color was intricately connected to a network of biases and superstitions. Republican Thaddeus Stevens, for instance, attributed his lifelong support of black causes to a deformity that provided him insight into what it felt like to be ostracized on the basis of arbitrary physical characteristics. While African Americans witnessed the rise of Jim Crow, hopeful immigrants at Ellis Island were being screened to weed out those with disabilities and birth defects.

Given that history, the existence of a wheelchair-bound president would seem to mark a leap forward for the cause. It was … and it wasn't. The complexities of Roosevelt's situation provide insight into our own social landscape in the wake of Barack Obama's stunning victory. In fact, Roosevelt's experience seems to point to a kind of uneven progress where we move forward as a society but not uniformly. In that light, the presidency may actually be ahead of other segments of American society in terms getting beyond bigotry.

In short, we shall overcome—but certainly not all at the same time.

There's also a kind of symmetry in the way that Roosevelt had to manage his disability—many Americans weren't aware of it at the time—and Obama's careful management of race as a topic during the campaign. The fact that the disabled and African Americans could be represented in the White House marked an undeniable breakthrough, but neither Roosevelt nor Obama could afford to dwell on that fact in their campaigns.

Many worried, for instance, that the Jeremiah Wright affair during the primaries had turned Obama into "the black candidate" in a way that his skin color and ancestry previously had not. That dynamic was present in 1997 when the Roosevelt memorial was built on the National Mall. The image discreetly obscures the fact that the president is confined to a wheelchair. The decision to literally cloak his disability generated so much criticism from advocates of disabled rights, that a second sculpture of him in a wheelchair was constructed.

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