Obama v. FDR: Using the Media to Restore Public Trust

By David B. Woolner |

legacy-lessons-150Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.

There is no question that President Obama exhibited a masterful use of the media, including the Internet, during his election campaign. Through it he established an almost unprecedented bond with the American people, especially young people, who came to see his campaign as a means by which they might change their destiny — both their own and the country’s. But in the past eighteen months, that bond has all but disappeared. Perhaps this is because the process of governing is never as exciting as trying to win an election. Perhaps, too, it is because the President has now become a much more familiar figure. Certainly both of these factors have played a role in the demise of the special relationship Candidate Obama enjoyed with the public. But there is more to it than over-exposure or the dreary process of governing. It seems that the President has forgotten or has lost touch with the key element in the world of media relations: his audience.

One President who never lost touch with his constituency — the American people — was Franklin Roosevelt. FDR saw the media not as a separate entity or institution to which he had a special responsibility, but — much like Candidate Obama — as a vehicle through which he could communicate directly with the people. Moreover, FDR well understood that a good share of the media ownership in the country regarded him and his policies with hostility. But he overcame this hostility by always staying one step ahead of them; through incessant action, bold leadership and by holding (with a few exceptions) two press conferences a week for a total of 997 while in office!

FDR’s media mastery and brilliant sense of timing meant that more often than not it was his administration that orchestrated the headlines — headlines that were often in lockstep with the public. FDR was able to do this because he focused on gauging the problems and mood of the nation. His concern’s mirrored those of the public and he used the media not only as a means to convey his profound understanding of their hopes and fears, but also as a means to explain how his government proposed to meet them. Perhaps the classic example of this was his use of his famous “Fireside Chats,” where the President would explain the settled polices of his government in simple conversational tones, much like a group of friends gathered around a fireplace. No President had ever spoken to the American people in such a manner before and the public responded in kind, increasing the volume of mail sent to the White House from an average of 5,000 letters per week under Hoover to more than 50,000 per week under Roosevelt.

By making last night’s Oval Office address, President Obama took an important step toward restoring his relationship with the American people. But he will need to do more to restore the bond he once had with the public. FDR used the media to constantly remind the American people that he understood their needs and was absolutely committed to acting in their behalf. In doing so, his voice became their voice and in a very real way attacks on the President and his policies were widely regarded as attacks on the people themselves.

Armed with the public’s trust, and having established an almost unparalleled bond with the American people, FDR was able to forge ahead with an unprecedented slate of programs that changed the course of American history. If President Obama wishes to do the same, then he must do much more than simply grant interviews and give the occasional press conference or town hall speech. He must show the American people that his concerns and theirs are virtually identical, so that together they may overcome the vested interests that in recent years have rendered Washington virtually dysfunctional. In short, President Obama, like FDR, must become the people’s president.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

David B. Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian of the Roosevelt Institute, Senior Fellow of the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College, and Associate Professor of History at Marist College. He most recently published the edited volume Progressivism in America: Past Present and Future.