Toward the Light: How Joe Biden’s Convention Speech Compares to FDR’s New Deal Address

August 21, 2020

True optimism is elusive, hardest to grasp when it is most desperately needed.

Vice President Joe Biden, running on empathy above all else, understands that instinctively. He opened his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention by pledging to be an “ally of the light, not the darkness.”

He was right to lead with faith in the future. Besieged by disease, economic despair, and mounting authoritarianism built on white supremacist systems, Americans face a stark reality.

In times like this, we need policy that leads with the heart and forges a clear path forward.

Nearly 90 years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt also understood this instinctively. Confined to a wheelchair and running for the White House as unemployment reached 25 percent, Roosevelt flew in a small, 12-person plane from Albany to Chicago to accept the Democratic nomination. In an age when only a few thousand Americans flew every year, and nominees did not attend conventions, Roosevelt’s decision manufactured real drama.

After approaching the convention dais by leaning against his son, FDR held his full weight with one hand clutching a railing just behind the podium; his legs, in braces, were hidden from view as he addressed the delegates.

His speech is now most famous for its last lines:

I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign; it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.

Roosevelt matched that values argument with a plan to put Americans to work: “public works as a further emergency means of stimulating employment, and the issuance of bonds to pay for such public works.” And there was plenty of work to do, particularly on the tens of millions of acres of abandoned lands, “now growing up in worthless brush,” which could be restored by the millions of Americans without jobs. The plan would be self-sustaining, financed by public debt because the “growth of tremendous crops will provide adequate security for the investment.”

On that 1932 evening, Roosevelt made some pledges that he would later rescind because they were wrong. Running as a balanced-budget candidate, he cautioned against taxes that supported “unnecessary functions of government.” Once in office, though, Roosevelt learned the necessity of visionary investment, and he oversaw both increased debt financing and higher taxes on the wealthy. (The expansion of government in the Roosevelt administration was more than paid for by the growth in GDP overall.)

As was clear from Joe Biden’s invocation of the New Deal last night, FDR remains an important example. His pledge to win back the soul of America for “the workers who keep this country going,” for those communities who suffer from “the injustice of the knee on the neck,” echoes Roosevelt’s people-first message.

FDR’s speech was policy-heavy. He spent a lot of time explaining economics for “you and I and the average man and woman.” His plans were ambitious: saving the entire system, putting millions back to work. In a few policy areas, Biden is proposing changes that could approach Rooseveltian scale, including his plans to rebuild domestic medical supply chains and, most importantly, invest significant public funds in decarbonizing the economy and fighting the climate crisis while creating jobs for a just transition. That increasing shift to more aggressive climate policies—prompted by education and pressure from activists—also parallels FDR’s political journey.

Given this movement, we can only hope that some of the Biden campaign’s cautions that their governance options will be limited because the “pantry is going to be bare” prove to be wrong. If Biden is to succeed, not just politically but substantively, he and his team must continue to adapt, as FDR did.

While the New Deal has maintained a lasting legacy in American politics, as demonstrated by its invocation last night, we must not forget those it failed: Black and brown Americans, especially women, who were excluded by laws and practices the New Deal left in place or built.

By leading with inclusion, utmost and intentionally by race, a True New Deal for the 21st century can actualize the optimism of the original. To meet that bar, Biden’s proposals must continue to evolve and seek to restructure systems that have always been broken for Black and brown Americans.

In the end, FDR listened to his brain trust and remade America. In so doing, he remade his own image as a frivolous charmer and created a structure for government that, though battered, endures today.

Eighty-eight years apart, Joe Biden’s and FDR’s convention speeches share an optimism too often missing from politics: that—with plenty of heart and muscle—we can make our way toward the light.