1935 opened as a year of acute political turbulence. Squalls were making up in every quarter, while the skipper stalled and vacillated, now beating to windward, now turning and running before the blow.
By his third year in office, FDR was in serious trouble, according to The Politics of Upheaval, Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s third entry in his opus, The Age of Roosevelt. Obama's first 280+ days have not been the gangbuster that characterized FDR's first 100 days and first 10 months, though he should be credited with some important victories for the country. And the media will play the elections this week as a blow to the Presidency. But huge victories were still to come for FDR after the turbulence of 1935 (a little thing called Social Security, etc.).
Yes, the Obama victory was just last November, but my head is hard-wired to January 20, when I was standing with my girlfriend, Patricia, on the mall in Washington, D.C. We held each other, as it was freezing, and the body heat of 2 million people warmed us. Barack Obama was taking the oath of office.
Like so many others, we had rushed to get there and were overwhelmed by the bigness of it all. We had risen at dawn, taken a bus across the Potomac, and then walked and walked. Everyone was giddy, bundled and laden with trail snacks, maps, feet warmers, extra socks, newspaper warnings, determined to survive the day (like an episode of Survivorman: DC!). As we neared the mall, rivers of people were streaming in from other streets. We waded into the merging sea, and then we could see, between the trees, the huge field rising to the Washington Monument.
We couldn't see the actual speakers at the Capitol, but could hear their words and Aretha's music. The big crowd was jubilant, singing the Na Na Hey Hey Goodbye song as Bush's helicopter took off. A middle aged Black woman and young white couple to our side hugged Patricia when the oath of office was delivered and Obama was finally, finally, the new president and W was finally, finally gone for good.
So, what I remember is the bigness of it all, the bigness of people's hearts, and it was packaged as a big change. The Obama campaign was a big operation, driving big dollars and, ultimately, a big win. It was a big day.
But we believed that the big change was meant to help little people, the common woman and man, in other words, all of the rest of us. Has that change happened? Some has, some hasn't. The President has time, but he has to move the yardstick, especially around the jobs issue. So, what now? Here are some ideas.
Fight for the little people: You've helped the bank barons. Now help everyday Americans -- fight to save their homes, help them through hard times, make their lives and that of their families easier. Pass real health care reform, make college education cheaper, expand Jobs Corp and youth volunteer programs.
Get pissed at the big people: You sounded angry during the campaign. Now clear the streets of the Wall Street con-men. Pass real financial markets reform and figure out a way to get some of the people's money back (talk to Michael Moore). Tell Wall Street to stop raiding our nest eggs.
Work on Main Street problems: Push the banks to lend to small-medium businesses. And using tiny amounts of federal job training funds, some states (like mine, in Pennsylvania) have constructed tried and true early warning programs that have prevented business failures, saving tens of thousands of mainly manufacturing jobs. It works and it's cost-effective. The auto task force worked swiftly for the Big Three. Do the same for little companies. If we lose the manufacturing supply chain, we'll never have that green jobs boom.
Partner with the stewards of our money: Our institutional trusts own $24 trillion. If you structured new partnerships that provided guarantees for a small portion of our pensions, insurance funds, endowments and other trusts, you could invest incredible sums to push for real economic recovery and rebuild our rust-towns and cities. Capital stewards could do the right thing (instead of investing in Wall Street's hedge funds and sub-primes), and build affordable housing, advanced manufacturing, windmill and solar companies, and green buildings--and still achieve solid financial returns.
In 1935, Governor George H. Earle of Pennsylvania had a warning for the working class and the disgruntled tea-baggers of back in the day, said Schlesinger. The greater danger, he said, was in allowing the men of wealth -- of Wall Street -- to send us all on a wild-goose chase after so-called radicals while they continue to plunder the people.
We've had a sick, twisted summer of wild goose chases, and the election results from yesterday will surely produce some more. We will not pass the change that's needed for little people unless the big coalitions get back to work. And, Mr. President, we're tired of being plundered. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Tom Croft, an international expert on innovative capital strategies and director of Pennsylvania's Steel Valley Authority, is the author of Up From Wall Street: The Responsible Pension Alternative (Cosimo Books, 2009).