In 1929, just after he was elected governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the headline speaker at a dinner organized by Tammany Hall. The theme of the night was political oratory, and in his remarks, FDR talked about the importance of political speech in the formation of the republic. As H.W. Brands records in his new biography, Roosevelt told the audience, “Elections were won or lost, parties were driven out or swept into power entirely as the public speakers of one side or the other proved most able and convincing. It was the golden age of the silver tongue.”
That tradition, however, had changed with the advent of mass media in the form of the newspapers. Then, as now, publishers seldom printed speeches in their entirety, and voters learned to take their cues from quotes that reporters and editors chose to excerpt.
But on that night eighty years ago, FDR saw a new technological revolution taking hold. He told the guests:
The pendulum is rapidly swinging back to the old condition of things. One can only guess at the figure, but I think it is a conservative estimate to say that whereas five years ago 99 out of 100 took their arguments from the editorials and the news columns of the daily press, today at least half the voters, sitting at their own fireside, listen to the actual words of the political leaders on both sides and make their decisions based on what they hear rather than what they read. I think it is almost safe to say that in reaching their decisions as to which party they will support, what is heard over the radio decides as many people as what is printed in the newspapers.
Roosevelt’s recognition of this change and his success in using radio to appeal directly to voters made up no small part of his political genius. For the next sixteen years, when he needed to win a political argument, Roosevelt took the discussion straight from the White House into the homes of ordinary citizens, and the nation’s voters sided with FDR time and time again. Roosevelt didn’t just win elections; he changed the way that politics in America were practiced.
But time didn’t stand still, and politics changed again in 1960. Television became the dominant medium, and that in turn forced voters to process information in a new way.The most successful politicians were those who had the discipline to harness the format and the wealth to run slick media campaigns. Operatives adapted political speech to the new paradigm, and the soundbite was born.
In less than a week, we will swear in a new president who has already shown an extraordinary capacity to use the emerging technologies of the Internet to break through the television mindset and the scripted candidacy it produces. But there is a important difference between using the Internet to campaign and using the Internet to govern.
To make the transition from politics to policy, Obama should look to FDR.
The day after he took office, Roosevelt made his first policy decision as president and issued an order to declare a national bank holiday. His goal was to end the panic that led thousands to descend on financial institutions and withdraw the entirety of their savings.
In less than a week, Congress passed the Emergency Banking Act, granting Roosevelt new powers to deal with the crisis. Three days after that, nearly 1,000 banks across the country were up and running again. Many who had withdrawn their wealth in the weeks before lined up to deposit it back again.
Exactly one week after issuing that first executive order, at 10 o’clock in the evening on the East Coast, FDR settled into his study in the White House and gave a short talk about his decision and the actions he took. He explained why some banks would reopen and some would remain closed. He closed saying, “You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”
The entire address was broadcast live over the radio, lasted for just a few minutes, and history remembers it as the first fireside chat. Will Rogers later said that the remarkable thing about Roosevelt’s talk was that he took “such a dry subject as banking and made everyone understand it, even the bankers.”
Roosevelt never believed that the problems of Washington, as difficult as they appeared, were too complex for the American people to understand. The genius of that first fireside chat and those that followed was that FDR spoke directly to his fellow citizens with respect, explained his actions as best he could, and as a peer, he asked the people of this country to join him in his work. “Together, he said, “We cannot fail.”
The tools of the Internet give Obama the same opportunity today.
When the president-elect gives his inaugural address on Tuesday, it will be watched in person by millions of people gathered in Washington to see it live. It will be watched by millions more across the world who will turn on their televisions to hear what Obama has to say.
But as the rest of Washington prepares to celebrate the new administration, a team working for the president will take the video of that speech, edit it for the web, and upload it to YouTube. And in the days that follow, it will almost certainly be watched from beginning to end, millions and millions of times.
This new political reality is an opportunity. It is a chance for a teaching moment.
With the network he built during the campaign, the pulpit offered by the White House, and the tools available to Obama online, the new president can appeal directly to the American people and do what FDR did: ask the people of this country to join with him in solving the problems we face as a nation.