The Obama Agenda


The right of every family to a decent home . . . The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health . . . The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.
From “The Second Bill of Rights,” proposed by
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, January 11, 1944

Every citizen has the right to health care . . . Free education, in all its stages is a right for all Iraqis . . . Every individual has the right to live in safe environmental conditions. The state shall undertake the protection of the environment and its biological diversity.
From “Lessons for U.S. in the [current] Iraqi Constitution,”
USA Today, March 8, 2006

Six years ago, I was in Chicago, speaking to the local affiliate of the Society of Professional Journalists. A Sun-Times reporter was driving me around, and he said: “There’s a young guy in the state legislature whom you’re going to be hearing a lot more about.” He gave me the name, but it was odd and hard to remember. Along with millions of Americans, I now know it well.

So far, however, Barack Obama’s campaign has been more glowing image than substance. One of his enthusiastic supporters, Virginia governor Timothy Kaine, a former civil rights lawyer, tells The Washington Post what it’s like campaigning with Obama: “There is a projection of hope on him from an audience that is just unreal. It’s unreal.”

It’s also fragile. As Emily Dickinson** said, “Hope is a thing with feathers.” Hope will not assure Obama the presidency; nor will his current promises of what he will do as president in very general terms—as Obama adds: “All of this cannot come to pass until we bring an end to this war in Iraq.”

Before he became surrounded by advisers closely parsing national and state polls, Obama had a record of specific accomplishments on the streets of Chicago (he was a community organizer) and during seven years in the Illinois Senate. More of that record will follow in this proposed agenda on his pilgrimage to the White House.

But in addition to his need to be more specific now about the intentions of his presidency, Obama—because he has the attention of the nation—has the capacity to bring the Democratic Party back to its most fruitful roots, as dramatically and credibly illustrated in a book by University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein. (Sunstein was a colleague of Obama when the latter was a lecturer at that law school.)

In The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever (Basic Books, now available in paperback), Sunstein begins with the “Second Bill of Rights” speech Franklin Roosevelt gave on January 11, 1944. (Since my family hardly ever missed FDR on the living room radio, I heard it, becoming aware that we citizens had claim to social as well as political and civil rights.)

When Roosevelt first campaigned for the presidency, he
spoke of “an economic declaration of rights.” Then came the so-called “Great” Depression, the Second World War, and FDR’s realization (acutely contemporary now) that “essential to peace is a decent standard of living for all individual men, women, and children in all nations. Freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want.” (Emphasis added.)

Pie in the sky? As reported in the February 14 Financial Times in an article on how globalization is increasing inequality in such nations as the United States, even Bush’s chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, is quoted as saying that “each person . . . should receive some insurance against the most adverse economic outcomes, especially those arising from events largely outside the person’s control.”

The president, however, does not speak of doing anything for the large and growing number of Americans now suddenly losing jobs in large companies, jobs they’ve had for much of their working lives.

At the beginning of this column, I cited part of FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights.” Also included: “Every American is entitled to the right to a useful and remunerative job . . . the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home and abroad, and the right to a good education.” FDR intended these to be rights, not just hopes.

All too obviously, FDR’s “unfinished revolution” remains unfinished. But the “Second Bill of Rights” did have an impact elsewhere. In reviewing Cass Sunstein’s book for The American Prospect magazine, University of Texas law professor William Forbath noted:

“FDR offered the Second Bill of Rights to the world—and the world bought it . . . as Sunstein observed, it became a leading American export. Shaping the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and influencing dozens of new constitutions.”

Moreover, startlingly, there are close parallels to—and expansions of—the Second Bill of Rights in the news and the now stillborn constitution of Iraq. As Gil Cranberg, former editor of the Des Moines Register‘s opinion pages, told me after he had discovered the now war-ravaged Iraqi constitution: “Bush touts the Iraqi constitution, but does he even know what’s in it?” (See the excerpt from the Iraqi constitution from the beginning of the column.)

Dig this from the Iraqi constitution: “All forms of psychological and physical torture and inhumane treatment are prohibited.” Tell that to Shiite death squads—or to the CIA!

Whoever put together the Iraqi constitution probably never heard of FDR, but parts of it reflect his understanding that “freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want.”

Also next week: What Barack Obama actually got done in Chicago and in the Illinois state legislature that can, if he becomes the Democratic Party’s leader, energize FDR’s “unfinished revolution.”

Building on his specific record, Obama’s campaign would now have less of the “rock star” impermanence and reflect more of what real-time changes his presidency will mean to our lives. As Cass Sunstein writes at the very end of his book: “The second bill of rights should be reclaimed in its nation of origin.”

**This citation has been corrected.
Return to the article.