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The Fifth Black Senator in U.S. History Makes F.D.R. His Icon

by WS Editors

Jun 1, 2005 | Economy, Politics


On July 27, 2004, when he made one of the most memorable speeches in the history of our political parties, at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Barack Obama began to click with American voters as they watched him on TV. In Illinois, helped by his reputation as a state senator and a African-American statesman, he ran for the U.S. Senate in November and won with 70 percent of the turnout. He was known for his belief that “what people are most hungry for in politics now is authenticity.” He’s got it.

At age 43, he has won a lot of praise from people who know him. Time magazine has found Obama enthusiasts who compare him to Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bill Clinton—and credit him with enough political clout to become a Democratic candidate for president in 2012 or 2016.

He has intellectual power. He is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and of Harvard Law School, where he was named the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. It is a record of scholarship that, matched with his popularity, led Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the House minority leader, to call him, at the time he won his senatorial seat, “an inspiration to the country before he is even sworn in” and to add: “Imagine what he has in store for us.”

This from a child of an African father who married a white American woman from Kansas, and who grew up in Hawaii after his father broke away from the family and returned to his homeland in Kenya. In considering his life, Obama concludes that “in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”

Meanwhile, Senator Obama has become a vox clamantis in deserto—a voice crying out in the wilderness. He is not yet frequently seen or heard on the Senate floor, but his occasional speeches elsewhere say a lot. A recent one that struck us as a self-illuminating sketch of his promising future was given recently at a Washington National Press Club luncheon. It got little national media attention, so we’ve decided to present some of it here to spotlight the talents of this unusually promising man.

A STIRRING SPEECH—Obama’s focus was on the Bush Social Security meddling. “We’ve heard about privatization and benefit cuts, about massive new debt and huge new risks, and we’ve even been scared into thinking the system will go broke when our kids retire, even though we know there’ll be enough money then to pay the vast majority of benefits.”

He spoke then about the Franklin Roosevelt era. “Some thought that our country didn’t have a responsibility to do anything about these problems, that people would be better off left to their own devices and the whims of the market. Others believed that American capitalism had failed and that it was time to try something else altogether.

“But President Roosevelt believed deeply in the American idea. He understood that the freedom to pursue our own individual dreams is made possible by the promise that, if fate causes us to stumble or fall, our larger American family will be there to lift us up. That if we’re willing to share even a small amount of life’s risks and rewards with each other, then we’ll all have the chance to make the most of our God-given potential.

“And because Franklin Roosevelt had the courage to act on this idea, individual Americans were able to get back on their feet and build a shared prosperity that is still the envy of the world.

“The New Deal gave the laid-off worker a guarantee that he could count on unemployment insurance to put food on his family’s table while he looked for a new job. It gave the young man who suffered a debilitating accident assurance that he could count on disability benefits to get him through the tough times. A widow might still raise her children without the indignity of charity. And Franklin Roosevelt’s greatest legacy promised the couple who put in a lifetime of sacrifice and hard work that they could retire in comfort and dignity because of Social Security.

TIMES HAVE CHANGED—“Today, we’re told by those who want to privatize that promise how much things are different and times have changed since Roosevelt’s day. I couldn’t agree more. A child born in this new century is likely to start his life with both parents—or a single parent—working a full-time job. They’ll try their hardest to juggle work and family, but they’ll end up needing child care to keep him safe, cared for, and educated early.
“They’ll want to give him the best education possible, but unless they live in a wealthy town with good public schools, they’ll have to settle for less or find the money for private schools.

“This student will study hard and dream of going to the best colleges in the country, but with tuition rising faster than ever before, he may have to postpone those dreams or start life deeper in debt than any generation before him.

“When he graduates from college, this young man will find a job market where middle-class manufacturing jobs with good benefits have long since been replaced with low-wage, low-benefit service sector jobs and high-skill, high-wage jobs of the future.

“To get those good jobs, he’ll need the skills and knowledge to not only compete with other workers in America, but with highly skilled and highly knowledgeable workers all over the world who are being recruited by the same companies that once made their home in this country.

“When he finally starts his job, he’ll want health insurance, but rising costs mean that fewer employers can afford to provide that benefit, and when they do, fewer employees can afford the record premiums.

“When he starts a family, he’ll want to buy a house and a car and pay for child care and college for his own children, but as he watches the lucky few benefit from lucrative bonuses and tax shelters, he’ll see his own tax burden rise and his own paycheck barely cover this month’s bills.

“And when he retires, he’ll hope that he and his wife have saved enough, but if there wasn’t enough to save, he’ll hope that there will still be two Social Security checks that come to the house every month.

“These are the challenges we face at the beginning of the 21st century. We shouldn’t exaggerate. We aren’t seeing the absolute deprivation of the Great Depression. But it cannot be denied that families face more risk and greater insecurity than we have known since FDR’s time, even as those families have fewer resources available to help pull themselves through the tough spots. Whereas people were once able to count on their employer to provide health care, pensions, and a job that would last a lifetime, today’s worker wonders if suffering a heart attack will cause his employer to drop his coverage, worries about how much he can contribute to his own pension fund, and fears the possibility that he might walk into work tomorrow and find his job outsourced.

“Yet, just as the naysayers in Roosevelt’s day told us that there was nothing we could do to help people help themselves, the people in power today are telling us that instead of sharing the risks of the new economy, we should shoulder them on our own.

“In the end, this is what the debate over the future of Social Security is truly about. After a lifetime of hard work and contribution to this country, do we tell our seniors that they’re on their own, or that we’re here for them to provide a basic standard of living? Is the dignity of life in their latter years their problem, or one we all share?

WASHINGTON TALK—“Since this is Washington, you won’t hear them answer those questions directly when they talk about Social Security. Instead, they use the word ‘reform’ when they mean ‘privatize,’ and they use ‘strengthen’ when they really mean ‘dismantle.’ They tell us there’s a crisis to get us all riled up about so we’ll sit down and listen to their plan to privatize.

“But we know what the whole thing’s really about. It’s not just about cutting guaranteed benefits by up to 50 percent—though it certainly does that.

“It’s not just about borrowing $5 trillion from countries like China and Japan to finance the plan—after all, we know how fiscal conservatives hate debt and deficit.

“And it’s not even about the ability of private accounts to finance the gap in the system—because even the privatization advocates admit they don’t.

“What this whole thing is about, and why conservatives have been pushing it so hard for so long now, is summed up in one sentence in one White House memo that somehow made its way out of the White House:

For the first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win—and in doing so, we can help transform the political and philosophical landscape of the country.

“And there it is. Since Social Security was first signed into law almost seventy years ago, at a time when F.D.R.’s opponents were calling it a hoax that would never work and some likened it to communism, there has been movement after movement to get rid of the program for purely ideological reasons. Because some still believe that we can’t solve the problems we face as one American community; they think this country works better when we’re left to face fate by ourselves.

“I understand this view. There’s something bracing about the Social Darwinist idea, the idea that there isn’t a problem that the unfettered free market can’t solve. It requires no sacrifice on the part of those of us who have won life’s lottery . . . and doesn’t consider who our parents were, or the education we received, or the right breaks that came at the right time.
“But I couldn’t disagree more. If we privatize Social Security, what will we tell retirees whose investments in the stock market went badly? We’re sorry? Keep working? You’re on your own? When people’s expected benefits get cut and they have to choose between their groceries and their prescriptions, what will we say then? That’s not our problem?

“When our debt climbs so high that our children face sky-high taxes just as they’re starting their first job, what will we tell them? Deal with it yourselves?

“This isn’t how America works. This isn’t how we saved millions of seniors from a life of poverty seventy years ago. This isn’t how we sent a greatest generation of veterans to college so they could build the greatest middle-class in history. And this isn’t how we should face the challenges of this new century either.

“And yet, this is the direction they’re trying to take America in on almost every issue. Instead of trying to contain the skyrocketing cost of health care and expand access to the uninsured, the idea behind the President’s Health Savings Accounts is to leave the system alone and give you a few extra bucks to go find a plan you can afford on your own. You deal with double-digit inflation by going to the doctor less. Instead of strengthening a pension system that provides defined benefits to employees who’ve worked a lifetime, we’ll give you a tax break and hope that you invest well and save well in your own little account.

“And if none of this works—if you couldn’t find affordable insurance and suffer an illness that leaves you thousands of dollars in debt—then you should no longer count on being able to start over by declaring bankruptcy, because they’ve changed the law to put the burden of debt squarely on your shoulders.

AMERICAN VALUES—“Taking responsibility for oneself and showing individual initiative are American values we all share. Frankly, they are values we could stand to see more of in a culture where the buck is too often passed to the next guy. They are values we could use more of here in Washington too.

“But the irony of this all-out assault against every existing form of social insurance is that these safety nets are exactly what encourage each of us to be risk-takers and entrepreneurs who are free to pursue our individual ambitions. We get into a car knowing that if someone rear-ends us, they will have insurance to pay for the repairs. We buy a house knowing that our investment is protected by homeowners’ insurance. We take a chance on start-ups and small businesses because we know that if they fail, there are protections available to cushion our fall. Corporations across America have limited liability for this very reason. Families should too—and that’s why we need social insurance.

“This is how the market works. This is how America works. And if we want it to keep working, we need to develop new ways for all of us to share the new risks of a 21st-century economy, not destroy what we already have.

“The genius of Roosevelt was putting into practice the idea that America doesn’t have to be a place where our individual aspirations are at war with our common good; it’s a place where one makes the other possible.

“I think we will save Social Security from privatization this year. And in doing so, we will affirm our belief that we are all connected as one people—ready to share life’s risks and rewards for the benefit of each and the good of all.

“Let me close by suggesting that Democrats are absolutely united in the need to strengthen Social Security and make it solvent for future generations. We know that, and we want that. And I believe that both Democrats and Republicans can work together to do that. While we’re at it, we can begin a debate about the real challenges America faces as the baby boomers begin to retire.

“They are about getting a handle on the growing cost of health care and prescription drugs. About increasing individual and national savings. About strengthening our pension system for the 21st century.

“These are important questions that require us to work together, not in a manufactured panic about a genuine but solvable problem, but with the spirit of pragmatism and innovation that will offer every American the secure retirement they have earned.

“You know, there are times in the life of this nation when we are individual citizens going about our own business, enjoying the freedoms we’ve been blessed with. And then there are times when we are one America, linked by the dignity of each and the destiny of all.

“The debate over the future of Social Security must be one of these times. The people I’ve met since starting my campaign tell me they don’t want a big government that’s running their lives, but they do want an active government that will give them the opportunity to make the most of their lives.

“Starting with the child born today and the senior moving into the twilight of life, together we can provide that opportunity.

“The day Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act of 1935 into law, he began by saying that ‘today, a hope of many years’ standing is in large part fulfilled.’ It is now time to fulfill our hope for an America where we’re in this together—for our seniors, for our children, and for every American in the years and generations yet to come.”

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