Presidents Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Barack Obama share a rare political trait. Their public policy is a mixture of principles that boldly bend around untried practical applications.
These leaders have dared to experiment. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German writer, artist and politician, caught how these three presidents lead. “All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times,” observed Goethe, “but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, until they take root in our personal experience.” Bold experimentation is required.
“Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators,” declares biographer John Meacham in “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.” “They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma. Jefferson had a remarkable capacity to marshal ideas and to move men, to balance the inspirational and the pragmatic. To realize his vision, he compromised and improvised.”
President Obama showed this Jeffersonian impulse by raising the federal minimum wage. Republicans voiced the predictable party line: If wages increased for 16.5 million Americans, it would cost 500,000 jobs. Obama’s critics sound like a biblical tower builder who scrapped plans after counting “cost, whether he had enough cash to complete it” (Luke 14:28).
It’s easy to stick by a principle to freeze the minimum wage because the cost in job loss is too great. What’s tough is to weigh options. That’s what our president boldly did. He realized raising the minimum wage helps more than burger flippers and restaurant servers. Wage earners heading American families hold these jobs.
Because most Republicans earn decent salaries, they are blind to workers’ plight. The result? Don’t raise the minimum wage.
“(Losing) half a million jobs is no small thing,” admit editors at The Christian Century magazine. “But change comes with costs, and here the benefits are far greater. Along with the 16.5 million workers that a $10.10 minimum wage would help directly, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that another 8 million would reap a spillover effect on wages.
“Overall, the change would improve the family incomes of more than 70 percent of low-wage workers and nudge 900,000 Americans above the poverty line. There’s little question that increasing the minimum wage would benefit low-income Americans” (The Christian Century magazine, March 19).
Hanging tough on principle makes sense to the GOP. Its constituency is largely white citizens whose bills are paid. They don’t realize an anti-minimum wage policy breeds bad politics. Freezing the minimum wage avoids dealing with the fiscal plight of sizeable demographic groups — such as women heading single-parent households, young voters and Latinos. These constituencies, which benefit from higher minimum wages, won’t vote for the GOP candidate in the 2016 presidential election.
You don’t lead by hitting citizens over the head with starchy principles. “That’s an assault, not leadership!” declared Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Writing The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson curled principle around practical application. If he composed a radical document, then it might threaten colonials. If his prose sounded trite or formulaic, overlaid with stuffy bromides that failed in the past, then Jefferson wouldn’t have roused colonials to revolutionary action. He expressed what colonials cherished about freedom, employing fresh, scintillating language.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt posed as the “new Jefferson” to attract voters demoralized by the Great Depression. During the 1932 presidential campaign, FDR spoke in Saint Paul, Minn., where he revered and respected Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt Jr.
“And of these three,” exclaimed Roosevelt in a lilting tenor voice, “Jefferson was in many ways the deepest student ... . His, after all, was the essential point of view that has been held by our truly great leaders in every generation.”
When Roosevelt first came into office, he endorsed financial principles of former Republican President Herbert Hoover. Shrink the national budget. Wait for natural market forces to kick in. Lower taxes. But these traditional measures failed miserably. The Depression deepened.
Responding, Roosevelt experimented. He turned from tired, ineffective GOP fiscal principles. He urged “bold experimentation.” Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. listed stunning results: “The whole point of the New Deal lay in its belief in activism, its faith in gradualness, its rejection of catastrophism, its indifference to ideology, its conviction that a managed and modified capitalist order achieved by piecemeal experiment would combine personal freedom and economic growth.”
Remember the aphorism: “Boats are safest in harbors, but that’s not why boats are built.” We shall never know what we are capable of until we try it. Bravely sail from safe harbors into restless oceans of untried policy.
Blend principles with emerging outcomes. Boldly experiment.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.