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Obama: Encouraging Social Movements and Other Lessons from FDR's Era

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The Obama agenda is, as George Packer noted, "... a list of issues that have different constituencies rather than a single, overarching struggle for freedom or justice."

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.

John Atlas is president and founder of the National Housing Institute, which publishes Shelterforce. He is writing a book about politics, democracy and poverty. It's the first narrative non-fiction history of ACORN, America's largest community organizing group, called "Seeds of Hope."  The book covers ACORN's work in housing, the Community Reinvestment Act, the subprime crisis, the living wage movement and the aftermath of the Katrina disaster and its voter registration work.  For over 35 years, he has been a public-interest lawyer, activist, writer, radio talk-show host, and organizer. He co-authored Saving Affordable Housing. He was the executive director of the nationally recognized Passaic County Legal Aid Society. His work has appeared in numerous publications including, The Star Ledger, The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Tikkun, The Nation, Dissent and Social Policy. Atlas holds a law degree from Boston University, a Masters of law from George Washington Law Center, and a Revson Fellowship from Columbia University. His most recent work, The GOP Blame-ACORN Game appeared in the Nation with co-author Peter Dreier. He blogs for the Star Ledger, New Jersey's largest newspaper.

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John Atlas is President of the Montclair, NJ based National Housing Institute and contributing editor of Shelterforce magazine. He is the author of the forthcoming book SEEDS OF CHANGE.The Story of Acorn, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty (more...)
 
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