"FDR As A National Leader"


In March, 1933 when he assumed the mantle of the presidency, Franklin Roosevelt took over from Herbert Hoover not only the power of that office but also the responsibility for dealing with the greatest economic crisis ever faced by the United States. Before he died in office in 1945, he also governed a country facing the greatest military threat to its existence ever - World War II. He served longer as president than anyone before or since and led the country through its two gravest challenges in the twentieth century. No wonder then that polls of historians and political scientists over the last sixty years have always produced the same results. Asked to rank American presidents in terms of performance, they always rank FDR as first or second. The only other contender for the top spot has been Abraham Lincoln, whose wise leadership had seen the American people through the Civil War when the nation nearly disintegrated.

To understand why FDR rates so highly in such polls you must of course consider the extraordinary length of his tenure and the unique circumstances of life during the 1930s and 1940s. We need to look additionally, however, at the various roles an American president is called upon to fill and how Franklin Roosevelt measures up in these various responsibilities. Given the nature of this course, I won't spend a great deal of time on the president's responsibilities in foreign affairs other than to mention that he serves as America's commander-in-chief of the armed forces as well as the country's chief diplomat.

Limiting our consideration to domestic affairs then, what are the major roles a president is called upon to fill and how does FDR measure up?


The President As Communicator/Leader of Public Opinion

Certainly this is the presidential role with which the general public is most familiar. It is the president they see on television, listen to on radio, and whose public pronouncements they read in newspapers and magazines.

Presidents have certain responsibilities and opportunities in this area. They have the duty of keeping citizens informed about the state of the nation. The president can identify potential problems facing the country, inform citizens of what's happening across the nation, how we stand as a country, etc. A good communicator can use the avenues of communication at hand to develop a personal rapport with the individual citizen.

Presidents have incredible opportunities in this capacity to be successful. If adroit as a communicator and leader/molder of public opinion, a president can:

Historians and political scientists evaluate and rank FDR extremely high in the field of communicator/molder of public opinion.

Part of his success was due to his infectious optimism. His theme song was "Happy Days Are Here Again". In contrast to Herbert Hoover, he offered Americans a grin instead of a frown. Roosevelt was able to restore a large measure of hope to his countrymen through his attitude and public appearances that the economic situation was going to improve.

FDR was also the first president to effectively use radio to communicate directly with citizens in their own homes....setting the agenda, pressuring Congress or individuals, setting expectations, etc.

According to David Halberstam: "For most Americans of this generation, their first memory of politics would be sitting by a radio and hearing that voice, strong, confident, totally at ease." "Most Americans in the previous 160 years had never even seen a president; now almost all of them were hearing him, in their own homes. It was literally and figuratively electrifying."Fireside Chat

Panel discussion on FDR's use of radio - LBJ Library Symposium.

The president also successfully got his message out to the people through his adroit dealings with the print media. He held informal meetings with reporters in the Oval Office twice a week during the years of the depression. Such sessions were amicable and totally spontaneous in nature. There were no written questions submitted before hand as had been the case with his predecessor. Reporters, charmed by FDR, wanted him to succeed and it showed it what they wrote. They found him a never ending source of news, all of which he spun from his own perspective.

The President As Chief Legislator

Increasingly in the twentieth century, the president is expected not just to execute the laws as enacted by Congress but to also play an active role in the legislative process. Presidents now propose entire legislative packages to Congress then attempt to forge voting coalitions to enact these programs. Either through focusing public pressure on legislators, working tradeoffs with or granting favors to individual congressmen, appealing to congressmen in the name of party loyalty, presidents - working through congressional leaders of their political party - now are major players in the legislative process.

FDR also rates extremely high in this category.

He proposed and induced Congress to enact the greatest legislative program of all time - the First New Deal of 1933-34 and the Second New Deal of 1933-36. Enactment was partly the result of the crisis environment, but he realized and took advantage of the feeling that something - anything - had to be done and done quickly to save the country.

The First New Deal (1933-34)

Bank Holiday
Roosevelt shuts down all banks in the country by executive order in order to buy time to find a legislative solution to the banking crisis
Emergency Banking Act
The federal government lends money to banks in shaky financial condition in order to stem the banking crisis
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
A government-sponsored insurance program guaranteeing the security of depositors' funds in member banks
Home Owners Loan Corporation
A government lending agency which attempted to save people's homes by refinancing mortgages and deferring or spreading out mortgage payments
Civilian Conservation Corps
A government employment program whereby unemployed young men were put to work on reforestation and conservation projects

Adjustment Act

FDR's attempt to solve the problem of overproduction of crops and resulting depressed crop values. Farmers who agreed to limit their acreage in production in line with a national plan to drive up agricultural prices would receive monetary payments from the government.
Federal Emergency Relief Act
A system of federal relief or welfare payments to the needy funneled through the individual states
Tennessee Valley Authority
A multi-purpose agency in the Tennessee River Valley that used government funds to construct and operate a series of hydroelectric dams.
Securities & Exchange Commission
A governmental regulatory commission to regulate the securities markets
Public Works Administration
A government-lending program designed to lessen unemployment by lending funds for the construction of various structures by other government entities throughout the country.
National Recovery Administration
An attempt to stimulate industrial recovery through centralized planning on a cooperative basis by management, labor, and government economists.

The Second New Deal (1935-36)

Works Progress Administration
An immense government employment program to build roads, airports, etc. WPA personnel also wrote books, painted art, staged plays, etc.
Wagner Labor Relations Act
Attempted to equalize the power of big business by giving government support to unionization. The act guaranteed the rights of collective bargaining by a union chose by workers.
Wealth Tax Act
Instituted slightly higher income tax levels on upper income groups as well as corporate income taxes
Public Utilities Holding Co. Act
Outlawed the pyramiding of control of gas and electricity companies and gave various federal commissions the power to strictly regulate the rates and financial practices of these companies
Rural Electrification Act
Lent funds to rural communities and cooperatives to either manufacture or buy electricity and construct transmission lines to electrify rural areas of the country
Social Security Act
Co-opting the Townsend Plan, the law created a government sponsored old-age and survivors insurance plan as well as a federal-state plan of unemployment insurance

The New Deal legislative revolution was also, however, the result of FDR's nuts and bolts political skills in this area of responsibility.

Garner, because of his long legislative career, knew how to "work" the legislative process. Furthermore, he knew everyone in Congress and had especially strong influence with the disproportinately powerful Texas delegation in Congress. Much of Roosevelt's legislative success arose from his wise selection of Garner to serve a more active role than any previous vice president. FDR was extremely good at using patronage appointments to get what he wanted out of Congress. Legislators wanted to place their allies and supporters in the vast bureaucracy created by the New Deal. Roosevelt held off making such appointments until after legislators had proven their loyalty by voting in support of his proposals. One political scientist commented that: "The most dramatic transformation in the relationship between the presidency and Congress occurred during the first two terms of Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR changed the power ratio between Congress and the White House, publicly taking it upon himself to act as the leader of Congress at a time of deepening crisis in the nation. More than any other president, FDR established the model of the most powerful legislative presidency on which the public's expectations still are anchored."

The President As Party Leader

A president's success in so many areas is often predicated upon his ability at leading his own political party. As such he performs many roles.

Political scientists and historians rate Roosevelt very highly as party leader as well.
The President As Chief Executive/Administrator

Besides these other roles in the domestic arena, the president is called upon to execute the laws of the land through his administration of the executive branch bureaucracy. He is to oversee the executive branch's operation through his appointees and is held responsible for the smooth functioning of this immense bureaucracy.

FDR's performance in this area was not nearly so high as in the other areas discussed. He did some administrative things very good but not so well on others.

He was excellent in terms of recruiting and appointing highly qualified people to office and then getting the utmost from them. This included representatives of many heretofore untapped groups. He placed academics in federal service. Most of his renowned "Brain Trust", which crafted the legislative initiatives that remade American government, came from prominent universities. This was a field heretofore largely unutilized. The same can be said of women, religious and ethnic minorities, as well as non-anglos. Francis Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor, was the first-ever female cabinet member. Other women were appointed to advisory committees as were racial minorities whose skin color had earlier been a disqualification for government service. Additionally, Roosevelt chose members of the Roman Catholic and Jewish faiths for public office. Tommy Corcoran and Ben Cohen were only the most visible of many such appointees.

Using other criteria, FDR was not nearly as successful. He created an immense new federal bureaucracy to carry out the New Deal programs because he didn't trust existing departments to carry out new initiatives.

While appointees were tremendously loyal to this phenomenal president, working for him was described by most as an exasperating experience. No one really ever knew for certain where they stood with FDR. He gave everyone he talked to the impression that he agreed with their advice on how to proceed. Subordinates incessantly speculated as to what exactly the president was up to, who was on the rise, and who was on the decline in his political universe.

A non-ideological pragmatist and gradualist, Roosevelt often assigned two or more individuals of conflicting philosophies to work in competition with one another on the same problem so as to get the best work out of both. While this sometimes produced positive results, it often led to legendary rivalries and feuds within the executive branch.


Suggested Readings:

James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox, Harcourt, Brace & World (New York, 1956)

Kenneth S. Davis, FDR: The Beckoning of Destiny, 1882-1928, Random House (New York, 1971)

Kenneth S. Davis, FDR: The New York Years, 1928-1933, Random House (New York,1985)

Kenneth S. Davis, FDR: The New Deal Years, 1933-1937, Random House (New York, 1979)

Kenneth S. Davis, FDR: Into The Storm, 1937-1940, Random House (New York, 1993)

Frank Freidel, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 4 volumes, Little, Brown and Company (Boston, 1952-1973)

Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, Simon & Schuster (New York, 1994)

Ted Morgan, FDR: A Biography, Simon and Schuster (New York,1985)

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt: The Crisis of the Old Order, 1919-1933, Houghton Mifflin Company (Boston,1957)

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt: The Coming of the New Deal, Houghton Mifflin (Boston,1959)

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Roosevelt: The Politics of Upheaval, Houghton Mifflin (Boston,1960)

© L. Patrick Hughes, 1999