Communication Currents

Current Commentary

The COVID-19 Pandemic Needs an FDR-like Rhetorical Response

March 19, 2020
Crisis Communication, Current Commentary, Political Communication

By Richard A. Cherwitz, Ph.D.

The rhetorical example of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) offers insight into our current and needed response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let’s start with the historical record. On December 8, 1941, FDR delivered his “Infamy” speech to a joint session of Congress, asking for a declaration of war on Japan. Within an hour of the speech, a formal declaration of war was passed, and the United States officially entered World War II.

FDR’s address is regarded by scholars of rhetoric as one of the most famous of all American political speeches. The speech was far more than a personal response by the President; it was a collective statement on behalf of all Americans in the wake of a heinous attack. As many Communication researchers and historians have suggested, FDR’s speech crystallized and channeled the nation’s response, fostering a unified resolve to defeat the enemy.

Arguably, America may never have rallied and won the war in the absence of FDR’s decisiveness—the country’s success was made possible by the rhetorical tone of his address to the country which, via passive voice, portrayed America as the innocent victim.

Not surprisingly, the nation unified at warp speed, converting private industry into a tool of war. Instead of manufacturing appliances and other products for personal consumption, for example, the United States in a remarkably short period of time began building implements of war—including tanks, planes, ships, and other armaments. Put simply, the war became a national priority.

When I started teaching political communication in 1979, FDR’s speech became one of the first rhetorical artifacts my students analyzed.

So, why is this more than one professor’s recollection?

On March 17, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio poignantly and astutely invoked FDR’s name and used World War Two/Great Depression rhetoric to claim that it will take a Federal response to mobilize the nation, as well as to provide the resources and plans necessary to address the health and economic crisis we now face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I concur. State and local efforts, no matter how aggressive and thorough, cannot possibly accomplish the enormous undertaking needed to respond to the coronavirus. States and cities don't have the wherewithal—and never have—to fight wars. It will take an FDR-type New Deal, along with the military, to produce the medical products and build the infrastructure needed to minimize the projected fatalities and suffering.

It also will require Federally administered programs and initiatives to feed, provide jobs for, and meet the financial needs of those in need. Unemployment is already predicted by the U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to rise to around 20 percent. So, let’s be sober and honest: This Federal recovery will cost trillions of dollars and will force us temporarily to ignore the effect of an increased deficit. But, as was the case during World War II, the survival of the country demands it.

Sadly, we don’t currently have an FDR in the White House—and it is hard to imagine President Donald Trump understanding and doing what is necessary. FDR was honest and leveled with the American people. By contrast, President Trump has made numerous untruthful statements, often giving us a false sense of optimism. He told us that the crisis was under control and would be gone in April, that COVID-19 tests would be available to anyone who wanted one, and that all products from Europe would be barred. And, he gave the impression that Americans would not be allowed back into the country. These are just a few examples of the President’s non-FDR behavior.

Moreover, the current occupant of the White House lacks FDR's personal temperament, discursive demeanor, and rhetorical sophistication. The content and less than empathetic tone of his Oval Office Address, as well as his performance during many news conferences, document that he is incapable of reassuring the nation that we will use all the tools necessary to successfully fight this war and rally the nation. Unlike FDR, Trump continually employs active voice and uses the first person singular “I,” placing the emphasis more on himself than on the crisis itself. In addition, his statements are full of braggadocio and self-praise—rhetorical attributes that are uncharacteristic of FDR.

While others don’t have the rhetorical advantage of the President’s bully pulpit, I am optimistic that the country’s citizens, as well as Republican and Democratic political leaders, will rise to the occasion in a bipartisan fashion—that together we will mobilize the nation in the war against COVID-19. We have done this many times throughout our history, and again we will do so now.

About the author (s)

Rick Cherwitz

The University of Texas at Austin

Rick Cherwitz, Ph.D., is the Ernest S. Sharpe Centennial Professor Emeritus in the Moody College of Communication and founding director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium (IE), the University of Texas at Austin.

Photo of Rick Cherwitz