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History repeats itself: Historian believes Obama can learn from past, FDR


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Eminent historian H.W. Brands’ lecture, “Presidents in Crisis: FDR and Obama,” began Mercyhurst College’s yearlong series, “Fear Itself: The Great Depression, The New Deal, and Today’s Search for Economic Security.”

In his lecture on Wednesday, Sept. 26, Brands compared Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), who presided over the Great Depression and World War II, to Obama.

Brands is familiar with the subject of FDR. His recent work, “Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Brands was recently asked to the White House, along with eight other distinguished historians, to advise President Barack Obama on what direction his Presidency should take.

During the lecture, Brands said he believes there are crucial differences between the circumstances that FDR and Obama inherited with their presidencies.

The stock market crash and The Great Depression are often compared to the banking crisis and recession today.

Brands stated although the two crises are externally comparable, there are fundamental differences. The stock market crash, according to Brands, was a crisis not only for bank shareholders, but also for bank depositors.

That is, people lost their life savings as banks closed. Today, the financial crisis has been largely restricted to the stock market.

Because of these and other circumstantial differences, Brands said that Obama should be wary of seeking to emulate FDR, a so-called ‘transformative president.’

According to Brands, such ‘transformative presidents’ presided over difficult times in American history, but this type of presidency is not desired.

Much of Brands’ lecture was devoted to the life of FDR, despite his assertion that the current president should not seek to emulate him.

“He really made FDR an interesting, real person. I liked how he explained FDR and how [FDR] always knew he’d be president,” junior Alex Derman said.

FDR entered office extremely well-prepared to be president, having tested many of his New Deal policies as governor of New York. Under the FDR administration, the government became far more responsible for the people, and the culture of isolationism was brought to an end, Brands said.

Brands closed his lecture with a list of things that he believes Obama can learn from FDR. Obama must explain the advantages of healthcare reform to the middle class, lose his composure a little, “get mad” and provide a “bad guy” in the healthcare debate, Brands said.

About 70 people attended the lecture.

Freshman Alicia Brooks enjoyed the speaker. “I wish he’d talked a little more about both FDR and Obama, though; not just FDR,” she said.

“Lessons of the Great Depression” is the next event in the “Fear Itself: The Great Depression, The New Deal, and Today’s Search for Economic Security” series. This event takes place on Thursday, Oct. 29, at 7 p.m. in Walker Recital Hall.

Tyler Stauffer photo: H.W. Brands gave the lecture "Presidents in Crisis: FDR and Obama" on Wednesday, Sept. 26. This lecture is part of a yearlong series at Mercyhurst College.Tyler Stauffer photo: H.W. Brands gave the lecture “Presidents in Crisis: FDR and Obama” on Wednesday, Sept. 26. This lecture is part of a yearlong series at Mercyhurst College.

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History repeats itself: Historian believes Obama can learn from past, FDR