Without a movement behind him, Obama won't have the power to overcome opposition to a transformative agenda. Will a social movement emerge over the next few years with the kind of clarity and coherence that empowered earlier ones?
What will Obama do if he suffers stinging defeats for such progressive measures as the Employee Free Choice Act? By the time FDR started his second term, big business and the right wing opposed him every step of the way. Bipartisanship was waning. With the support of the union and other grassroots movements, Roosevelt began using populist attacks against the rich and powerful, which in turn gave more legitimacy to the movements from below. His second acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic convention attacked the "economic royalists" and "privileged princes" of "economic dynasties" who had "created a new despotism." In that campaign's final speech Roosevelt said, "I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master." FDR used revolutionary rhetoric to voice "anger and resentment," Alter writes, "without destroying the system."
Alter's entertaining book provides a fascinating look into Roosevelt's leadership style and how, during his first hundred days in office, he began to shift our view of the role of government. Roosevelt had great political instincts and a commanding personality to enact bold new policies. His close personal link with the people, his brilliant speeches and the innovative use of the media helped sell his early agenda. Obama seems to have the talent to do the same. But only if a powerful social movements grow, will he be able to save the economy and be a truly transformative president.