WASHINGTON — Banks failing and the economy in shambles, the new U.S. president reassured a nationwide audience that his administration was putting America back on the right track.
"It was the government's job to straighten out this situation and do it as quickly as possible," Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in the first of a series of radio addresses dubbed fireside chats, "and the job is being performed."
More than seven decades later, Barack Obama borrowed heavily from FDR's playbook as he tried to slip as effortlessly into the role of comforter in chief. "Every American should know that their entire government is taking the utmost precautions and preparations," Obama said of the flu outbreak Wednesday night.
Balancing two wars, a creaky economy and — now, suddenly — a flu bug of near-pandemic proportions, this new president used his third prime-time news conference to assure America that its oft-derided government could rise to the challenge. At the same time, he sought to inspire citizens to help themselves rather than rely solely on Washington.
This is not to say Obama will be as popular or successful as Roosevelt, a president whose record is still vulnerable to criticism. But the parallels between these two relatively young, challenged-by-crises presidents are too tempting to ignore — particularly when Obama seems to be channeling FDR as a communicator.
Like Roosevelt, Obama inherited a global economic crisis and moved quickly to address it, drawing stiff criticism even as he tried to lower expectations for a fast turnaround.
"Our troubles will not be over tomorrow," FDR said during an Oct. 22, 1933, radio address, "but we are on our way, and we are headed in the right direction."
Reading from the same script, Obama declared Wednesday night, "I think we're off to a good start, but it's just a start. I'm proud of what we've achieved, but I'm not content. I'm pleased with our progress, but I'm not satisfied.
So far, Americans seem to be giving Obama credit for trying.
An AP-GfK poll marking Obama's first 100 days in office found that, for the first time in years, more people think the country is headed in the right direction than not. The percentage of "right direction" voters has jumped a remarkable 31 points since October, the month before Obama's election.
Are Obama's gifts as great? So far, he has managed like Roosevelt to give many Americans a common purpose.
"We happen to have gotten a big set of challenges, but we're not the first generation that that's happened to," Obama said. "And I'm confident that we are going to meet these challenges just like our grandparents and forebears met them before."
He has benefited from his political team's ability to use new media — such as YouTube and text messaging — to get his views out to a fast-changing public. Roosevelt used new media, too: the radio.
This was Obama's third prime-time news conference. He's on TV all the time. And yet, the AP-GfK poll shows that few people think Obama is overexposed.
Read the transcripts of FDR's fireside chats. You'll find that he spoke in plain, sometimes folksy language to methodically explain the nation's problems and outline his proposed solutions. Agree or not with Obama's politics, it's hard to argue that he doesn't communicate as effectively as Roosevelt.
While FDR patiently explained to Americans that a bank doesn't keep people's money in vaults ("it invests your money"), Obama didn't think it was beneath his office to offer health tips for the flu.
"I've asked every American to take the same steps you would take to prevent any other flu: keep your hands washed, cover your mouth when you cough, stay home from work if you're sick and keep your children home from school if they're sick," Obama said.
"We'll continue to provide regular updates to the American people as we receive more information," Obama said more than seven decades after Roosevelt promised to give Americans regular radio updates.
"And everyone should rest assured that this government is prepared to do whatever it takes to control the impact of this virus."