Many consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be our third greatest president. In books such as The New Dealers’s War, by Thomas Fleming, 2001, and The Forgotten man, by Amity Shlaes, 2007, FDR receives re-evaluation.
Not all went as well with FDR as has been taught. Unemployment was still 20% in 1939. There was a severe recession in 1937, Europe had recovered much faster. Eight years into his presidency, we were not prepared for war, a war easily foreseeable, and building the military would have greatly aided the economic recovery. Churchill was left to oppose Hitler largely alone for a year, and eventually the US had to side with and arm Stalin to beat Hitler. We were unable to influence the immense slaughter in Poland and Ukraine by Germans and Russians alike. FDR placed Japanese American citizens in detention camps, he prevented Jews from emigrating from Europe. Ships with fleeing Jews were actually sent back into the clutches of Hitler.
FDR shelved Einstein’s famous warning about the possibility of an atom bomb, and the English had to urge on the Manhattan Project. FDR did not move to support anti-lynching legislation, or oppose the segregationist southern democrats. His National Recovery Board supported monopoly price fixing and collusion in markets, favoring big business, placing small businesses at great disadvantage. This was eventually ruled unconstitutional, unanimously, which led FDR to try to ‘pack’ the Supreme Court. He taxed the ‘little guy’ with excise taxes, and raised taxes overall, and enormously increased government regulation. The NRA in 2 years created more federal law that all the previous years of the nation since 1789.
The Great Depression turned out to be the one exception of the US ‘boom and busts’ that didn’t quickly resolve, the only one in which government didn’t act to increase the incentives of investment and the small business economy. The hampered economic recovery served to justify increasing federal power. And increasing federal power is what he did. He targeted political enemies with IRS investigations, and muscled the elections of congressional leaders. Far from having a ‘first class temperment’, he manipulated, frustrated, and infuriated his appointees, and staff. Many abandoned him. He was the first to break George Washington’s honor code of serving only two consecutive terms.
But he was a political success. The New Deal was a political deal. FDR personally directed New Deal funds for political gain, lavishing his supporters with government funds, denying those that opposed him. He was a charming public speaker, he cultivated and pressured the press to support him and to gloss over his contradictions. He spoke a strong populist theme, but he bought elections with New Deal money. In his great electoral victory of 1936, federal spending outpaced all local and state spending for the first time. He didn’t hesitate to say opposing things to opposing audiences.
FDR died in office, galvanizing his image of victorious service to the nation, but he brought Tamany Hall to Washington, D. C.