Celebrating Presidents' Day with the Great Progressives-In-Chief


In the interest of having some Presidents' Day fun, consider the following question: If progressives were given the chance to re-sculpt Mount Rushmore in their image and likeness, which presidents would most deserve recognition?

I've given you my personal favorites below -- on the whole, it's a fairly predictable line-up, but as you'll see, some of the more predictable choices have earned their progressive plaudits for accomplishments that tend to get glossed over by the history books.

Theodore Roosevelt

First thing's first: TDR would get to stay. To understand why, see his 1910 "New Nationalism" address in Osawatomie, Kansas, which President Obama explicitly channeled in a recent populist call to arms in the same town -- both speeches called for a return to shared prosperity, a strong middle class, and freedom from abuse by powerful corporate entites that corrupt the political system to serve their interests. 

TDR also understood how the values of economic fairness and democratic inclusion were logically connected to environmental sustainability -- his Square Deal agenda placed ecological preservation front and center with consumer protection and trust busting, highlighting how corporate exploitation of our natual resources remains closely related to the exploitation of wage workers and the electoral system. This is a policy lens that we at Demos take very seriously and have worked to extend to the problems of the 21st century.

Franklin Roosevelt

Our readers will see FDR as maybe the most obvious choice, but no list would be complete without him -- the legislative accomplishments of his first 100 days are an unmatched contribution to the establishment of a mixed economy promoting fairness and shared prosperity. 

But FDR gets less recognition for another proposal near the end of his presidency -- the "Economic Bill of Rights" -- which, according to legal scholar Cass Sunstein, was sincerely intended to be incorporated into the Constitution to supplement the "political" rights already enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Here's how FDR put it in his 1944 State of the Union:

As our nation has grown in size and stature...political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men.

The guarantees provided by this Economic Bill of Rights would include "the right to a useful and remunerative job," "the right of every family to a decent home," and "the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment."

These are powerful ideas, and they sit at the intersection of what Demos was founded to promote -- the mutually-reinforcing condition of a fair economy and inclusive democracy. For all that FDR achieved, the failure of these rights to become explicit guarantees for all Americans means that his greatest ambitions remain open for today's generation of progressives to fulfill.

Harry Truman

Although Truman is appreciated far less than FDR as a progressive leader, his economic agenda was distinctive in that it aimed to combat inequality in a time of budding economic recovery -- does that, by any chance, sound familiar? Truman's "Fair Deal" agenda called for major reforms in housing, labor, social welfare programs, and public institutions, all of which were concerned with preventing excessive accumulation of wealth at the top in the postwar economic rebound.

The Fair Deal generally gets less credit as a progressive agenda because, for the most part, it failed to get passed into law -- the Republican Congress of the time worked aggressively to block much of Truman's legislative agenda in order to hold his presidency at a stand-still. That should also sound familiar.

Lyndon Johnson

Much like Franklin Roosevelt, LBJ is perhaps an obvious choice: the Great Society initiatives -- ranging from the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act to Medicare, Medicaid, the National Endowment for the Arts and NPR -- remain some of the most popular and enduring contributions that progressives have made to American society.

Consequently, LBJ tends to get more credit for his legislative accomplishments than he does for his contributions to progressive thought -- but, as Ira Katznelson of Columbia University highlights in a recent book, Johnson was a passionate advocate for an amazingly activist philosophy of social justice: one that insists on making "equality" among Americans not just a formal promise but rather an actual fact of life. Here's a brief exerpt from a commencement speech at Howard University outlining this idea:

...[F]reedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to go where you want, and do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please. [...] This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.

Barack Obama

As long as we're rotating the line-up on Mount Rushmore, we would go ahead and add a fifth slot to honor President Obama for extending the legacy of progressive activism into the 21st century -- for overseeing an economic stimulus of unprecedented scale, for passing financial reform and establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and for extending health coverage to 30 million more Americans.

Of course, my hope is that his greatest progressive accomplishments are yet to come, particularly because the American middle class remains as strapped today as ever. But if this list does nothing else, I'd say it gives us reason to be optimistic.