It’s important that Hillary Clinton chose a place that honors my grandfather to officially launch her campaign and unveil her vision for our nation. In doing so, she sought to claim the Rooseveltian style of leadership and to position herself as the person who will carry forward the Roosevelt legacy of action, insight and advancement.
Now that the crowds have gone home, can she live up to the challenge she is setting for herself?
My grandparents shaped our nation and the world in ways that were deeper and further reaching than almost any other figures of the 20th century. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt took America from the brink of total economic collapse and laid the groundwork for the greatest stretch of prosperity we’ve ever experienced.
They fought for democracy and against horrific regimes the likes of which the world may never have recovered from and used that moment to form a strong global alliance that is still in place today. They did all of this through the New Deal—by rewriting the rules of our capitalist system so that it works for everybody, and by building the postwar international system linking our economic and security interests as one global family.
They put rules in place to make capitalism work for the many as opposed to a few at the top—including rules for our financial system to protect consumers and control risk. The New Deal invested in America’s future through roads, bridges, modern electric systems, schools, and other essentials of a modern society. The Roosevelt administration expanded protections and rights for workers and families and gave them a seat at the bargaining table and ensured their security after retirement. They created a path to the middle class for millions of Americans.
But the Roosevelt record and so many of the strides we made through the New Deal have been undermined over the past 35 years as so many of those rules, investments, and protections have been rolled back. As a result, the American middle class lifestyle is almost as far out of reach today for most Americans as it was when my grandfather took office, and the future looks dim.
My grandparents took office four years after the Great Depression hit; our next president will be sworn in less than a decade after the Great Recession hit. The gap between those at the top and the rest of us is at a point last seen before the New Deal. Workers and America’s families face an entrenched wealthy class seeking to control who benefits from our economy and our political process. And there is growing unrest in the world as radical militants seek to undermine and destroy the very concept of democracy by taking advantage of our dysfunction.
Just as they were 83 years ago, the American people are desperately hungry for action and leadership to fix the imbalances in our economy and society.
A recent CBS/New York Times poll showed that the majority of Americans—rich and poor, men and women, Republicans and Democrats—agree that income, opportunity, and influence are unfairly concentrated at the top and that these disparities are growing. Further, Americans support government action to address this inequality and rewrite the rules of our economy.
For all my grandparents accomplished, so much of their work is still left unfinished. The beautiful park from which Secretary Clinton spoke celebrates the fundamental Four Freedoms my grandfather laid out in his 1941 speech as essential to democracy and to all of humanity: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. Yet for many in our own nation and across the world, those essential freedoms have yet to be fully realized. Another unfinished act proposed by my grandfather was a second bill of rights guaranteeing every American access to the central pillars of economic security—employment and a living wage, decent housing and medical care, public education, adequate food and clothing, and healthy leisure. The work of ensuring that the good ideas of the New Deal are equally available to women and to communities of color also remains incomplete.
Now is truly the time to hand the baton to the next great leader committed to completing this work.
If Hillary Clinton wants to follow in the footsteps of Franklin and Eleanor, then she must not just reflect on their legacy but carry forward their energetic leadership and relentless pursuit of bold solutions.
Clinton must summon the courage to once again fundamentally rewrite the rules of our economy, restore balance, challenge entrenched power, and seek a New Deal for the 21st century.
The American people will follow that kind of leadership.
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt is Chair of the Roosevelt Institute’s Board and President and CEO of Goodwill NNE.