Term in Office: 32nd president, 1933-1945
Home State: New York
The social contract had changed. You wouldn’t know it from the lack of constitutional conventions, or the absence of revolutionary rhetoric, but the tacit agreement that bound the government and the governed had been altered, and there were countless subterranean signs to that effect for anyone who cared to look. The Great Depression had devastated the country, turning proud workers into supplicants, CEOs into dishwashers, and Ozark farmers into nomads with little more than a vague hope to make it to California. The massive extent of the wreckage made many Americans rethink their relationship to the state and demanded that its government do something (and a very inchoate something) to fix the economy and bring relief to the destitute masses. The Depression killed the earlier Jeffersonian consensus that the government that governs least governs best.
The single most important factor of FDR’s presidency is that he recognized this tectonic shift and took large-scale measures to accommodate it. His solution was called the New Deal. Think of the New Deal as a three-legged stool of reform, recovery, and relief built to support an ailing economy- so, a collection of short-term help with long-term structural change. There are too many programs to cover all of them, but the most important include the Glass-Steagall Act (bifurcating commercial banking from investment banking), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, FERA relief, the Civilian Conservation Corps (which put 2 million men to work, helped conserve some beautiful parts of our country), the Civil Works Administration, the Rural Electrification Act (if you live in North Dakota and can read this, thank FDR) and the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation. Not all of these took effect immediately, but their psychological impact in restoring hope is incalculable. Half a million Americans wrote letters to FDR within weeks of his inaugural, and saw his dynamic First 100 Days as a signal that things were finally moving in the right direction after the hapless Hoover administration.
FDR was also a landmark president because of how he communicated with the wider public. He took McKinley’s innovations to the next level, and used radio as a tool to not only reach voters, but to persuade, cajole, calm, and reassure them. He added, in other words, a personal or human dimension to the presidency that stands out baldly when you juxtapose a fireside chat to a stilted Wilson or Hoover address.
The New Deal, and Roosevelt’s presidency more generally, was also marked by experimentation and innovation. Sometimes it didn’t work, but when it did, the results were staggering. Roosevelt was the first president to have a female cabinet secretary, Frances Perkins of the Labor Department at a time when women in positions of leadership were suspect. He attempted sundry programs his Brain Trust came with them, and had the pragmatism to reject what didn’t work. “I have no intention of making a hit every time I come up to bat,” he once explained. “What I seek is the highest possible batting average.” All this shows that creativity, considering options nobody else has tried yet, is an essential ingredient to presidential success. He was also a canny information monger, often setting aides against one another to see who could deliver crucial news-bites and rumors to him first, and through almost sheer force of personality was able to impose order on an increasingly expanding federal bureaucracy.
In terms of character, FDR had an ingredient that helped him succeed at this high level: empathy. He might have been just another Hudson aristocrat dabbling in politics as sport, but his crippling battle with polio gave him insight into lack of opportunity and allowed him to better perceive that many Americans, not through lack of work but through bad luck and circumstances out of their control, needed a helping hand. This trait went double for my favorite component of the FDR presidency: Eleanor. The First Lady was a crucial help to the best, most compassionate, elements of the FDR administration–always needling him to remember the destitute, or to be more proactive on civil rights. Although the solutions to the dilemmas of the 30s and 40s were often complex, byzantine, and highly overmanaged, there was always a beating heart behind them and a human concern for others that sets it apart from the “Screw you, you’re on your own” attitude of, say, Coolidge. But FDR was also creative, mischievous, curious, childlike; the joy of the presidency stayed with him.
He also fixed a few endemic problems in the political process along the way. For one thing, the Democrats had a self-immolating rule that required that their nominee have 2/3rds of the vote at their convention. This led to a number of terrible compromise nominees over the years (John W. Davis, James Cox, Alton Parker) and prevented stronger Democratic candidates who had a small, devoted corps of enemies from winning the nomination. In accepting renomination in 1936, FDR demanded that the number be reduced to a simple majority as a condition of his acceptance. He also began the tradition of a candidate personally selecting his running mate, ending the days of back-room wrangling for the vice-presidency. But not all innovations and fixes were equally wise. Many people recognize (correctly, I think) that his attempt to pack the Supreme Court was a badly conceived move, and gave those who claimed that FDR was a totalitarian power-grabber all the ammo that they needed. However, it is important to remember that the number of Supreme Court justices is not set at nine permanently; the constitution allows for Congress to change the number of justices, and it did fluctuate many times during the early 19th century. It wasn’t an illegal plan, or a sinister plan, but it was a plan that was poorly considered, and if carried out, would have compromised the Supreme Court’s independence. Still, the Court was packed with minimalists and strict constructionists during FDR’s early years, including recalcitrant justices from the Harding, Wilson, and even Taft years. They struck down the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, a New York minimum wage law, and other measures, proceeding from the Lochner era philosophies that such measures curtailed freedom of contract. Fundamentally, the Court did not realize what FDR did: that the living, dynamic, social contract had changed, and it had changed in ways that a strict-constructionist or corporatist worldview could not perceive, could not accommodate, and ignored at its own peril. Eventually, with a bit of patience, time did what the court-packing plan could not; by FDR’s death, he had appointed eight out of the nine justices and a more progressive jurisprudence prevailed.
All of this led Franklin Roosevelt to succeed as no other president had done. He won election four times, and each one was a landslide. In 1936, he won every state in the country except Vermont and Maine, two disproportionately rural areas filled with old-fashioned Yankee Republicans. And even in 1944, his closest election, he still won states that had been considered monolithically Republican just a generation earlier like Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Utah, and New Hampshire. He remade American politics with the so-called New Deal Coalition of inner-city workers, poor farmers, Appalachians, Southerners, and even black Americans (the FDR years were the first time when African-Americans began to abandon the Party of Lincoln.) His impact was so deep and enduring that in 1967, Time columnist Hugh Sidney wrote, “You could stand on this Tuesday afternoon…and look out over the faces of the East Room of the White House and suddenly understand that Franklin Roosevelt still owned Washington. His ideas prevailed. His men endured. The government that functioned now was his creation perhaps more than any other single man.”
I categorized Franklin Roosevelt a “Champion of Justice” and in some ways that is true. For generations afterward, Appalachian hill folk and trade unionists looked to him as a hero and many even kept a portrait of the man in a prominent place in their house. He was also perhaps the first president who actively worked in partnership with organized labor, and did not see trade unionists as quasi-socialists out to turn America toward Bolshevism. With his help, more Americans enjoyed weekends, holidays, safer working conditions, and the ability to bargain collectively than ever before. In other ways, however, FDR fell short of this heroism, particularly with respect to America’s most vulnerable citizens. Black Americans, especially, benefitted from New Deal reforms less fully; traditionally black jobs were kept out of the Social Security Program, blacks generally weren’t hired as part of the CCC or CWA, and of course, the odious practice of redlining kept the African-American community from enjoying the blessings of middle-class home ownership. With Southern Democrats in charge of nearly all the important committees, FDR was at their mercy to pass his legislation through. Of course, more egregious than this–something most people would consider to be a serious human rights violation–was the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Every semester that I teach in Singapore, I assign a chapter from George Takei’s autobiography where he discusses his earliest memories in an Arkansas camp for Japanese-Americans, and the sense of guilt and shame (as well as the loss of property and dignity) that came from the experience. While this wasn’t a concentration camp, and efforts were made to make this experience bearable, it was without question a bad move, and for me, it single-handedly killed any chance for FDR to make it to the top of my rankings. Whatever else he may have done to improve the spirit and health of the nation, that was an unforgivable act of race prejudice and an abrogation of personal rights.
Looking at the whole picture, think of the various pressures on republics and democracies during the tumultuous 1930s across the world, many of which thrived on the uncertainty created by the Depression. In those kinds of environments, fascism, viable communist parties, the genial antisemitism of Father Coughlin, and the personality cult surrounding Huey Long all found sympathetic listeners. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Oswald…all of these movements responded to the crises of the 1930s by threatening to tear down capitalism, or democracy, or decorum. Under Franklin Roosevelt, capitalism and democracy survived, and even thrived, by tweaking its excesses, sharing its blessings more equitably, and fostering a robust and gainfully-employed middle-class out of the ashes of Depression. If an odd conservative managed to find his way to my blog, and believes that Franklin Roosevelt was capitalism’s greatest enemy in American history, I submit to the contrary that he saved it from itself.
Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency was long, complex, and very difficult to evaluate. No president who served for that long and through not one, but two major paradigm-shifting moments–Depression and War–could hold office without making not just mistakes, but serious mistakes along the way. But what is success on a presidential level? I take a humanitarian approach: the best presidents govern well and wisely, but ultimately work to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, give hope to those in despair. Ultimately, I’m a social democrat with a strong footing in the prophetic strand of the Judeo-Christian tradition. And since I’m the one making the rankings, I’ll conclude: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a great president–full stop.