Why we should sweat the small stuff

Following this week's debates concerning hotspots from Israel to the U.S.-Mexico border to our own Supreme Court, I am reminded of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's words: "Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough."

Today looks markedly different from FDR's era. Technology has revolutionized not only how we view our homes and workplaces, but also our time horizons, mobility and ability to communicate across borders and boundaries with ease and speed. With increased convenience, one might assume society would quickly break down barriers.

ADVERTISEMENT
And yet, we are still considering many of the very same questions Roosevelt confronted regarding America's role on the world stage. Closer to home, the responsibilities of the federal government remain at the core of public debate. While the photos are less grainy and the names have changed, we continue to wrestle with many of the same challenges, from education and healthcare, to economic opportunity and assurance of one's basic human rights and dignity.

From geopolitical instability to humanitarian crises and rising healthcare costs, today's problems seem far more breathtaking than owing Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) 30 burpees. And yet, The New York Times' coverage of U.S. Representatives sweating together was one of the more heartening things I read recently.

Early members of Congress recognized the value of camaraderie both personally and professionally. While historians challenged political scientist James Sterling Young's appealing "boardinghouse" theory that members of Congress who boarded together in the 19th century tended to vote together, anyone on Capitol Hill recognizes that one needs her or his friends across the aisle to accomplish much of anything worth doing.

Roosevelt's 1936 fire-and-brimstone Madison Square Garden campaign speech is memorable for his calling out his opponents, going so far as to say, "I welcome their hatred." Even so, he eventually offered a master class in being both tough and collaborative, convening his New Deal coalition of improbable allies — big oil and big banks, labor unions, rural voters, minorities — that enabled him to accomplish sweeping legislation over an unprecedented four terms.

While early-morning gym-goer Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) demurred that the group's current efforts would not "solve the national debt," I take solace that there are bipartisan groups, whether for grueling workouts or to swap books.

The New Deal's sweeping legislation offers many lessons, but I can think of three that are particularly relevant today.

First, no matter how brilliant your idea is, you can't make good policy without good politics. Reaching across the aisle is essential now more than ever. At a time when "compromise" is viewed in some corners as a dirty word, we need a wake-up call that resourceful problem-solving hardly qualifies as "softened fiber."

Second, FDR's track record across issues demonstrates that he recognized the value of investing in America's future. While Mullin and his gym crew may not be solving the national debt yet, investing in relationships as younger representatives may well serve them – and us all – moving forward. When Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) are trusted by Republicans to broker deals in the coming years, one just might find the origins of these relationships in the House gym.

Finally, thorny problems require bold leadership. Roosevelt knew this meant not always being liked. After all, the man "welcomed" hatred and learned firsthand that leadership can be intensely lonely. Few people understand the day-to-day realities of being an elected official, making daily decisions that upset more than a few. Having allies who can relate to the challenges of public responsibility, let alone looming reelection, time away from family and a 24/7 media cycle, just might help those we trust with serious decisionmaking weather the stress and strain.

When it comes to living up to the lofty ideals set forth by a free people, kindness and collaboration just may be at the heart of some tough decisionmaking – and ultimately, overdue problem-solving.

Babcock-Lumish, president of Islay Consulting, previously served as the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute's founding director of public policy and an economics professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point.