At a harrowing national moment, Franklin D. Roosevelt commandeered the young airwaves for a "fireside chat" with the American people — a candid talk about big troubles and how to fix them. He was confident and strong, a father figure to a nation that was losing its way.
"My friends," said Roosevelt, freshly inaugurated in 1933, "I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking."
On Tuesday night, three quarters of a century later, Barack Obama stepped up to a less intimate but equally high-stakes version of the national fireplace to do the same thing: talk a good game, draw us a map back toward prosperity and "speak frankly and directly to the men and women who sent us here."
Many chief executives have spoken directly with the American people since FDR's era, and an address to Congress is hardly an intimate radio talk. No president, however, has faced a context so similar. Never have the words felt so aimed at soothing Americans who are scared, broke, rousted from their homes, uncertain about the future of their lives and nation.
"He speaks to people very well," said Fred Elliott, 44, owner of a Coldwell Banker realty office in Lehigh Acres, Fla.
'A kind of self-confidence'
Facing lawmakers and Americans by the millions, Obama traded doomsaying for optimism and invoked an American chestnut — the tenacity of hope. "We will rebuild, we will recover. And the United States of America will emerge stronger than before," he said.
But do we believe him? As in Roosevelt's time, comforter-in-chief is only one hat of many. On Tuesday, though, it seemed to fit.
"He exudes a kind of self-confidence that I don't think we've had for a long time. He kind of carries you along with it," said Terry Swihart of Wakarusa, Ind., who has been laid off twice in the past year — once from a job she held for 28 years. Her husband also lost his job.
Despite her approval, Swihart added this caveat: "I hope it's not just rhetoric."
That is always the fear, particularly for a president whose eloquence was targeted in the campaign as evidence of his disingenuousness. The words Obama chose — empathizing with Americans while also addressing Congress — were the language of hope but also of tough love.
"He seemed a little more upbeat, instead of just crisis, crisis, crisis," said Melissa Must, who runs a coffee shop in downtown Cincinnati. She stayed up to watch Obama's speech even though she rises before 5 a.m. to get to work.
"You have to take responsibility for yourself," Must said. And Americans, the president insisted, were ready. He addressed a nation that he insisted does not shy away from challenges — it's in our spirit — and demanded action not only from government but from the people.
No instant gratification
What's more, he acknowledged that progress will not be immediate — bad news for an instant-gratification culture but something that Jaime Silahua, watching the speech in the San Francisco suburb of Antioch, understood well.
"He inherited a country with grave problems," Silahua said. "The change is going to take some time. He'll start it, and probably the next president will finish it."
Silahua is on the front lines of the tanking economy. Antioch has been hit hard by foreclosures, and housing values have dropped by 50 percent in many neighborhoods. Silahua's house, which he bought for $281,000 seven years ago, is now valued, he believes, at about $89,000. He is fighting a bank eviction.
So Obama's plan is, for him, a bit more abstract: "His initiatives are good — they just probably won't help me at this point."
That is often the problem when grand national themes collide with the building blocks of people's lives and bank accounts. Obama invoked the vaunted American optimism and said that yes, another American century was possible. But it can be a hard sell for folks who lie awake at 2 a.m. with the stomach-churning realization that the creditors will be calling at dawn.
"People are really worried about a long-term shift — is the American Dream over?" said Evan Cornog, a Columbia University historian who studies how presidents craft their own narratives.
Looking for more than words
Such fears are personified in Americans like Robert Lombardi, 64, who last month closed his pet store in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, where foreclosures are at record levels and no one is buying pets. "A little soothing," Lombardi said of Obama's speech. But ...
"I love this country, and I hate to see it going where it's going," he said. "It's going down the toilet. But it's a long fight. These are just words, and now we're going to see what the actions are."
When FDR started his fireside chats in the depths of the Depression, hope was a scarce commodity — even more scarce than it is today. The new president, eight years before World War II began, reassured Americans with a voice that was "authoritative but not autocratic, persuasive but not coercive," FDR biographer Jonathan Alter wrote.
That was, of course, long before Vietnam and Watergate and the deep distrust in government that they begat. Jody Baugh, an unemployed Indiana welder, offers the modern equivalent of the warm reception that many Americans gave FDR's chats. Baugh was hungry for hope and, he said, Obama delivered.
"He didn't come across as a used-car salesman," Baugh said. "He came across as someone who legitimately cared about people like me." From Baugh, Obama received high marks on investing in the middle class and holding bankers accountable for their incompetence.
"This is the first time I ever watched the whole speech of any president," Baugh said. "I didn't get up at all. It gave me more confidence. I thought, `At least I've got somebody who is more on my side than before.'"
Demanding that the people act
And though one-third of the nation's history separates them, Obama and Roosevelt shared one thing above all else as they addressed Americans about the economy at the beginning of their presidencies. Each demanded action — not only from government but from we, the people.
Said Roosevelt in 1933: "It is your problem no less than it is mine."
Said Obama in 2009: "The time to take charge of our future is here."
That distinctly American message — that it's up to us, if we can live up to our destiny — sat well with Bill Bibbes, a 68-year-old retiree in Jackson, Miss. Bibbes lost much of his savings to the Enron collapse, then watched lenders foreclose on his son-in-law's house and saw his wife's 401K dwindle as Wall Street tanked.
He thought Obama was being too ambitious with the economic recovery plan until he watched the president address the nation.
"My hope for the country is that we can come together," Bibbes said. "That's what we need more than anything. Everybody has to participate."