April 27, 2006


What FDR Teaches Us: Long Shadow: A new book relives his first 100 days. Have a look, Mr. President. (Jonathan Alter, 5/01/06, Newsweek)

On one level, it's unfair to compare a sitting president to his predecessors, especially when he has more than two and a half years to go. And it's doubly unfair to compare George Walker Bush, currently experiencing some of the lowest approval ratings in the history of polling, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who is on the list of even conservative historians as one of our best presidents. But juxtaposing the two men may shed some light on both Roosevelt's unusual gifts and Bush's current troubles. FDR's presidency can offer some useful lessons—for today's White House, and for anyone intrigued by the mysteries of leadership. [...]

Two weeks after barely dodging assassination in Miami in February of 1933, Roosevelt took office and performed a similar conjuring act on a larger stage. With the banks closed and millions of Americans wiped out, FDR used his "first-class temperament" to treat the mental depression of Americans without curing their economic one. In the days following his "fear itself" Inaugural and first "Fireside Chat," the same citizens who had lined up the month before to withdraw their last savings from the bank (and stuff it under the mattress or tape it to their chests) lined up to redeposit patriotically. This astounding act of ebullient leadership marked the "defining moment" of modern American politics, when Roosevelt saved both capitalism and democracy within a few weeks and redefined the bargain—the "Deal"—the country struck with its own people.

In "The Defining Moment," my new book examining FDR's election and storied Hundred Days, I don't draw explicit comparisons with Bush. But they're hard to ignore.

In fact, as David M. Kennedy points out in his entirely orthodox liberal history of the period for the Oxford History of the United States, Freedom from Fear, FDR's hundred Days were a complete flop and it was only several terms later that the economy started growing again in any meaningful way, largely because we were building stuff to sell to the Europeans who were at war. Meanwhile, the notion that capitalism and democracy were in any peril is the kind of claptrap you get from folks who don't believe in them to begin with, else they'd not think them so fragile.

It is worth considering though what George W. Bush would have accomplished with a congressional majority and a landslide victory of the size that FDR was handed by circumstances in 1932. The undoing of the New Deal/Great Society would be much further along, with personalized retirement accounts, universal school vouchers and perhaps even some kind of universal HSAs. We'll likely still manage to undo the damage FDR caused, but it will take a while longer.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 27, 2006 7:54 AM

Bravo Matt.

Posted by: erp at April 27, 2006 8:25 AM

First, a minor correction. As Jay Cost has reminded us, the Democrats did not win a majority in the US House in 1932 in the general election. But they did have one by the time Congress convened because so many Republican had died and been replaced by Democrats before Congress chose its leaders. Strange, but true.

More importantly, almost every economic historian now agrees that FDR's policies -- however well meant -- deepened and worsened the Great Depression, net. (The Federal Reserve also is to blame.) But somehow Alter doesn't know that.

Posted by: Jim Miller at April 27, 2006 8:26 AM

It will be harder for Bush, because victory doesn't mean what it did in FDR's day. Switching the federal bureaucracy from political appointments to civil service was great for FDR, but cost those who followed a great deal of power. Sigh... Like most socialists, no thought for the future.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at April 27, 2006 11:28 AM

Even Alter understands that FDR didn't actually do anything: FDR used his "first-class temperament" to treat the mental depression of Americans without curing their economic one.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 27, 2006 1:20 PM

'There is something in Mankind that loves a lord'
S. Clemens?

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at April 27, 2006 2:31 PM


All I did was send OJ the article -- the comments are all his.

I did note to OJ, however, that recently reading most of the Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence gave me a close-up view of Roosevelt's naivete towards the Soviet Union, so I'm amused to hear Alter present Roosevelt as a guy without a preset agenda who only went where the facts took him.

Also, Alter says that President Bush is responsible for politically dividing the nation. I listened to President Bush giving a speech at Kansas State a while back and he actually apologized for mentioning the Democrats by name when he brought up critics of his foreign policy. It might sound childish but I think it's fair to point fingers at the Democrats and say: "They started it."

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 27, 2006 7:34 PM

Wheras FDR and the Democrats ran a campaign that essentially accused the GOP of being pro-Nazi.

Posted by: oj at April 27, 2006 7:45 PM

Thanks Matt.


Bravo oj.

Posted by: erp at April 29, 2006 8:07 AM