In Desperate Times, the Rise to Take the Reins and Take On Fear Itself

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HYDE PARK, N.Y. — As winds howl through the empty rooms of failed financial institutions and foreclosed homes, as unemployment statistics spike and stocks plunge, as an era of high hopes stutters with fear, and seeming shelters shake on fraudulent foundations, who would not hope that new leadership might stave off further catastrophe?

And a new leader, coming to power with his “brain trust” of advisers and his “new deal” for the nation, has but a short time to make his case before inertia and fear become dominant once again.

Does the analogy need to be spelled out? In his campaign, as the financial world was convulsing a few months ago, Barack Obama invoked Franklin Delano Roosevelt and cited his most famous line from the First Inaugural — “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” — words delivered in 1933 during the worst days of the Depression. Four thousand banks had collapsed in two months, and one of every four workers was unemployed. Nearly half the country’s $20 billion in home mortgages were in default.

Since Mr. Obama’s election, references to Roosevelt have become even more plentiful. Caricatures of the president-elect with a cigarette holder and an insouciant Roosevelt grin have appeared in major publications. Mr. Obama has implicitly invoked Roosevelt’s approach to what was the worst financial crisis of the 20th century, saying he would enact the largest public-works program since the building of the federal highway system in the 1950s. And he has made clear (conceptually echoing Roosevelt) that his attention to the welfare of the citizenry would be inseparable from his attention to the health of the economy.

So it is fortunate that the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum here, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the start of the New Deal, mounted an exhibition, “Action and Action Now: FDR’s First 100 Days,” referring to the brief period that Roosevelt treated as a self-imposed challenge to begin having an effect. During that time he oversaw the passage of 15 major pieces of legislation that transformed the country’s view of itself and redefined the character of American government.

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