Like many others, our household has been enthralled by Ken Burns’ latest tour de force, “The Roosevelts.” Having read several biographies on Theodore and Franklin, I found that the film brought even more of their experiences to life. It also highlights a clear contrast between their times and ours in American politics.
The Roosevelts faced extraordinary challenges – two world wars and other foreign interventions, the most serious economic depression our nation had ever experienced, the advent of women’s right to vote and direct election of senators, the rise and fall of bosses in politics and robber barons in business as well as doubts about our system of government.
Despite coming from different parties, their overriding ethos was activist, high energy, can-do government. Not big government, not intrusive government, but smart, effective government to make the changes, right the wrongs and pursue policies that were populist and pragmatic. Both Roosevelts took on the establishment, even though they came from the establishment. Both Roosevelts recognized the use of power for good, whether it was breaking up monopolies, passing child labor laws, protecting America’s most beautiful open spaces, putting in place Social Security for the elderly or insuring Americans’ bank deposits.
Respect for our institutions, particularly government, is close to an all-time low. Every crisis drives approval ratings down even further. Support for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has gone from 60 percent in May 2013 to 37 percent in the wake of the Ebola crisis. Congress has seen its approval ratings go to single digits. President Barack Obama’s numbers are approaching an all-time low, beginning to enter George W. Bush territory when he left office.
In my view, these numbers represent a strong belief that our leaders don’t lead. Rather, we seem to have a group of politicians who spend too little time doing what the Roosevelts did and too much time holding their fingers up to the political winds.
We are faced today with a reluctance to act, a refusal to recognize that an aggressive response to our problems is required – whether it is current issues like Ebola, the Islamic State group, Secret Service transgressions, reform of our intelligence agencies and the IRS, or large issues like engaging wholeheartedly in rebuilding our infrastructure and reforming our schools. The list goes on and on.
The public does not just sense the gridlock, particularly in Washington, but they are losing faith in political leadership. Americans are looking for leaders like TR and FDR who call them to action and raise their faith and their optimism again. They are looking for leaders who follow through and take on the big battles of the day. They are looking for leaders who stop bickering about big government or small government and embrace a sense of activism that tackles the tough problems.
The problems aren’t any tougher or harder to solve now than they were during the first half of the 20th century. The difference is many of our leaders won’t take them on and use the power of government for good. We need more Roosevelts.