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Politics

Biden looks to Roosevelt as model for uniting nation

In 1930s, FDR stared down a depression and implacable political foes

President Joe Biden pauses as he signs his first executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House on Jan. 20.   © AP

WASHINGTON -- Every day, as U.S. President Joe Biden looks up from the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, he will see a massive portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a fellow Democrat who assumed the same post more than eight decades ago.

Like Biden, FDR took office in a time of crisis. After the devastation of the Great Depression that began in 1929, he put the economy back on its feet through the New Deal -- a series of programs, projects and financial reforms that helped stabilize the economy and provide jobs and relief to the suffering.

The four-term president united the country after the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan and led the U.S. in World War II.

"Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth." One of FDR's best-known quotes sounds particularly relevant in today's world and is likely one reason Biden chose the portrait to be the centerpiece of his new office.

Biden returns to the same White House where he spent eight years as vice president under Barack Obama. But he now inherits a much-changed America.

The Oval Office has been redecorated for U.S. President Joe Biden, with a painting of predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt over the fireplace mantel.   © AP

In his inaugural address Wednesday, the newly sworn-in leader uttered the word "democracy" 11 times in his 20-minute-plus speech -- more than in any other presidential inaugural address in history, according to a CNBC analysis. He said "unity" eight times.

But Biden's calls for unity came from a venue protected by armed guards and fenced off from the general public. The scars of the Capitol rioting two weeks earlier run deep.

A recent CNN poll shows that while 99% of Democrats believe that Biden legitimately won enough votes to be president, only 19% of Republicans do.

"I'm not technically a member of the Republican Party," said Jack Dean, a 66-year-old business owner in Massachusetts, "but I do believe strongly in what Donald Trump brought to the party."

"He was really the first president in my lifetime that understood what it was like to be a businessman, what it's like to hire people and try to grow a business," Dean told Nikkei.

He rejects the idea that backers of the now-former president launched the Jan. 6 assault at the Capitol. "I don't believe it was Trump supporters," he said. "I think there were other people there that were paid or just motivated to try to make it into a violent scene to make it look bad for Trump."

Dean accuses the news media of ignoring this angle. "They haven't even done any journalism. They haven't investigated at all. We don't know who fired the guns or who let them in," he said, or who "really instigated the violence there."

"Trump supporters are generally decent people that want to just live their lives and raise their children, have a good job and have a nice life. They're not politically motivated on a day to day basis to make change."

Arlie Hochschild, professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, said Trumpism stems from a sense of both fear and loss.

"It was loss of an economic foothold, it was loss of the primacy of their values, it was their demographic loss, as whites," Hochschild told Nikkei. "They thought, 'Oh, now we're going to be a minority group.'"

"They feel like they're waiting in line for a deserved reward and that the line isn't moving," she said.

There is also a feeling of shame, Hochschild said: "Because of the American dream that you should be doing better than your father did. Your kids should be doing better than you. There's an upward belief in moving to a goal."

"Their lives don't fit that paradigm anymore," she said. "Especially the men, especially the blue collar -- and we are talking men without four-year degrees -- that their lives have come unraveled in many ways. They are less likely to be either working or looking for work."

They are more likely to "not be living with the mother of their children, and they may have lost custody of their children," Hochschild said. "So there are many ways in which their lives have not worked out."

A Donald Trump supporter attends a rally in Philadelphia on Nov. 5 to demand a fair count of the votes in the U.S. presidential election two days earlier.   © Reuters

Trump relieves them of this shame, she said: "It gives them pride. 'If America is great again, you will be great again.' But he also says, 'OK, you don't have to feel shame. I will protect you from that shame, and I'll find other people to blame.'"

The Capitol protesters reportedly included a judge's son, a former gold-medalist swimmer, state legislators and educators. Trumpism runs deeper than merely a handful of extremists.

While Trump's approval rating among Republicans and Republican leaners has fallen from the 77% he commanded in August 2020, a post-riot January poll by the Pew Research Center showed that 60% of them still approved of his performance.

The stark reality for the Republican Party is that it cannot sustain momentum without accommodating Trump supporters.

American politics has a history of mutual toleration and forbearance, write Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book "How Democracies Die."

"These two norms undergirded American democracy for most of the 20th century," they recount. "Leaders of the two major parties accepted one another as legitimate and resisted the temptation to use their temporary control of institutions to maximum partisan advantage."

Such traditions may be at risk of eroding.

Police officers scuffle with a protester in front of the Reichstag Building during a rally against the government's restrictions following the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Berlin on Aug. 29, 2020.   © Reuters

In 1930s Germany, it was the general public that empowered the Nazis to rise amid the cracks between the major parties.

Since the war, the European country has been ultrasensitive to such extreme movements.

But last August, hundreds demonstrating against COVID-19 restrictions climbed over fencing around the Reichstag in Berlin and ran toward its entrance.

The sight of far-right activists, some waving the black, white and red "Reichsflagge" of the German Empire, assaulting a democratically elected legislature shook the nation to its core.

Trump vowed in his farewell speech Wednesday that "we will be back in some form." Trumpism is far from dead.

"The only way for Joe Biden to deal with this -- and he won't be able to eradicate it entirely -- is to govern effectively to show that his presidency, and the Democrats in Congress, can deliver real benefits to ordinary people," said Allan Lichtman, the American University history professor who made headlines by correctly predicting that Trump would win the 2016 presidential election but lose to Biden in 2020. "That's what Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s."

FDR "also faced incredibly bitter opposition that didn't think he was a legitimate president, and he overcame it with successful policies," Lichtman continued. That's really what Joe Biden has to do."

Additional reporting by Ken Moriyasu in Washington.

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