This will be the last of my entries on the election, though not the last on the general topic of politics and education. I’m going to pick that up again in a few weeks.
I wrote this call on President-elect Obama to bring back FDR-style Fireside Chats a few days before the election, finally coming to believe (cautiously) the national polls. The piece is quickly becoming dated, however, as FDR comparisons abound and as the Obama team itself is announcing plans to use media in FDR-fashion. Still, there’s a few points in the piece below that might be of interest to the readers of this blog. As always, I welcome any comments.
Between 1933 and 1944, during another period of economic crisis and war, FDR gave a series of thirty memorable radio speeches to the American people. The speeches covered topics of pressing importance: from the banking crisis, unemployment, and federal works programs to national security, the progress of the war, and plans for peace. The speeches were both political and educational; they inspired and instructed during difficult times.
We need the same today. And President Obama is poised to provide it. He combines considerable intelligence and thoughtfulness with rhetorical skill. He could talk to the nation about the economy, about terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about climate change and energy.
He could talk further about the social issues that divide us. And he could continue the national conversation we are finally having about race – the conversation his candidacy sparked.
We already have, of course, the weekly presidential radio address, but the revived Fireside Chats would be of a different order. In this regard, it is enlightening to read the originals. They are rich in information that is carefully presented and explained, and they blend reassurance with hard truths. The first one on the banking crisis, delivered one week after FDR’s inauguration, is uncannily relevant today.
The media-savvy Obama team could use the tools it mastered during the campaign; television and radio but podcasts too and the multi-media internet.
The new Fireside Chats would be a concrete way to use Barack Obama’s message of hope to immediate and important ends: to calm nerves and markets but as well to shape a longer-term response to uncertain and rapidly changing times.
We are in the midst of a wrenching redefinition of our economy. Comfortable American ideas about the market, about government intervention, even about the dreaded “European-style socialism” are being turned inside out. Or consider the awful damage done in political battle through the demonizing of Arabs and Muslims and the inflaming of racial bias. And then there are the wars on two fronts.
During the campaign, Obama was mocked for being a professor, and the media tag “professorial” was deadly – implying aloofness and abstraction, a man out of touch. But there’s a flip side to this professorial business: someone who knows a lot, is thoughtful, sees value in teaching. Bill Clinton was the master president-as-teacher. Obama has the ability to be the same.
The best political speech is both inspirational and pedagogical. It moves us and informs us. Especially at this time in our history, we could benefit immensely from thinking about politics as teaching. The Bush Administration has diminished the value of knowledge. It substituted loyalty for expertise, feeling for rationality, the cherry-picking rather than analysis of evidence.
For the much of the last eight years fear has been the primary mechanism of political persuasion. We are left with a desperate need for a richer sense of purpose, an opening up rather than narrowing of our national imagination.
As a nation, we have a lot of learning to do, a lot of self-examining and reorienting of our economic and civic lives. Presidential addresses of the gravity of FDR's Fireside Chats would help guide us. Barack Obama could become the education president in a unique and powerful sense of the word.