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Franklin D. Roosevelt: An American Legend

Franklin Roosevelt is hailed as helping to unify the Democratic party by using the Great Depression as a springboard to successfully strengthen the economy.

Franklin D. Roosevelt stands at the heart of American legend, and rejuvenated the Democratic Party as well as propelled it into a new marriage with the left.  The Great Depression launched Roosevelt into office with sweeping efficiency on the coattails of promises of relief and recovery of the crippled United States economy.  Richard Hofstadter portrays a very different image of Roosevelt than a typical history student is accustomed to entertaining.  Contrary to popular belief, Roosevelt’s signature relief plan, The New Deal, was not a result of cohesive planning or specific strategy, but rather a collection of arbitrarily collected ideas and policies concocted by Roosevelt “on the fly”.  The New Deal was intended to save the American economy and capitalism itself from sure collapse. Hofstadter illustrates Roosevelt as a man who expressed the popular temper of America more accurately than any other man of his time.  This statement refers to more than just Roosevelt’s liberal approach to politics and policy making.  It also refers to the way in which Roosevelt dealt with economic and foreign policy in a charging frontier of ideas.  Roosevelt’s undying willingness to flex to the will of his supporting public as well as his acceptance of policy change made him a prime candidate to appeal to the masses in a time of panic and uncertainty.  Roosevelt’s policies on big business reflect his common practices in policy making as a whole.  He constantly changed his stance on big business and its role in the relief effort as his presidency evolved.  Once an unintentional advocate of big business via his heralded organization, the N.R.A, Roosevelt gradually shifted his policies to unionized labor as his support drifted toward the liberal left and away from the conservative right that he had prided himself in appealing to.  Roosevelt was an advocate of nonideaological pragmatism, and his policies, however benevolent in theory, are not represented by Hofstadter as having a large positive effect on the United States economy.  Hofstadter argues that the New Deal was as ineffective as it was unplanned, and that the United States economy was rescued by World War II, and not Roosevelt.  The question remains, however: were the New Deal policies a rousing success or a failure doomed to the dark pages of history books?

Roosevelt could be described easily as exploiting the American appetite for change in a desperate time.  Not only did he embody the unerring readiness to transform the role of American government in society, but he possessed a desire and a willingness to change his views on certain aspects of his own policy.  Roosevelt’s approach to New Deal politics was as desperate as the people themselves.  He constantly changed and molded his policies in order to appeal to public sentiment, against the professional advice of many of his private economic advisors.  Roosevelt had a distaste for economics as a whole, and was quoted as saying he did not trust the advice of economists simply because they seem to change their philosophy every five or ten years.  Roosevelt preferred instead to tailor his policies to his own whims, passing legislation with surprising ease through a frantic congress eager to pacify the crisis.  Roosevelt was a man who obviously represented the era’s desperation, as well as its spontaneity.  Roosevelt was widely known as a flimsy plane for ideas.  After supporting the formation of the League of Nations in the twenties, he entirely reserved his sentiments on the League during his campaign for president.  This is not surprising, seeing as the League was not a highly regarded organization, however; Roosevelt’s readiness to retract previously held beliefs mad it evident that he was willing to disregard anything in order to stabilize the United States.  One policy very indicative of his presidency was the formation of the N.R.A, an organization dedicated to stabilizing the economy by regulating business and working conditions.  This policy is widely regarded as a failure because it did not succeed in pleasing labor, nor did it satisfy the hunger for change and liberation demanded by big business.  The New Deal policies of Roosevelt’s first term incurred the wrath of much of the conservative right, causing Roosevelt to unconsciously shift his focus toward pleasing the liberal left.  This change from mediation to appeasement as evidenced by Roosevelt’s liberal legislation of his second term confirms the idea that he was a man who was as volatile and variable as the times themselves, and thus, the perfect person to lead the United States in the nineteen thirties.

Roosevelt’s policies toward big business could be described as puzzling at best.  Throughout his political career, Roosevelt made a name for himself as a great mediator between extremes, reconciling special interests, the left, the right, and everything in between.  This desire to mediate and pacify was obviated in his first term as president.  He passed legislation in an attempt to please both big business and unions as well as to stabilize the economy.  The culmination of this legislation was the formation of the National Recovery Agency.  This agency imposed many restrictions on big business, but attempted to allow it to grow and reform as well.  Several policies by the National Recovery Agency attempted to please the union population as well, especially the permission of collective bargaining.  However, many loopholes in the act eventually turned the tide of the N.R.A against the unions.  In this sense, during his first term as president, Roosevelt was indeed a friend of big business.  His policies had succeeded in permitting unions certain rights, but the key element of the permission of individual bargaining doomed his agency to fail on both fronts.  The failure of the N.R.A as well as several other unsuccessful policies caused the conservative right to turn on Roosevelt.  Suddenly, the famous mediator had become repudiated by a large political portion of the country, most notoriously the wealthy.  Thus, Roosevelt gradually shifted his policies to appeal to his support, the left.  He began passing several pieces of key legislation that appealed to unions rather than to big business, such as the organization of social welfare and a social security agency.  During his second term as president, Roosevelt could almost be regarded as an enemy of big business, not by choice, but rather by circumstance.  Roosevelt did not intend to shun the concept of big business, and was not a reputed opposition to the wealthy class.  However, the lack of support from the right caused an inevitable shift in Roosevelt’s political philosophy.  This shift governed the practices of the Democratic Party for decades to come.

Richard Hofstadter argues that Roosevelt’s New Deal policies did not succeed in lifting the United States from the clutches of the great depression, nor did they have the direction to be effective in any major way.  He claims, rather, that the outbreak of World War II and the United States support of the Allies was the impetus for the end of the economic panic.  The manner in which Roosevelt legislated, however representative and responsive of the time in which he presided, lacked cohesion and direction, and often attempted to meld together appeasements between two incompatible extremes.  This mediation was inappropriate in a time when sweeping change with a purpose was demanded.  The New Deal consisted of many helpful and beneficial policies connected in such contrasting ways that they were rendered almost entirely useless.  Had Roosevelt followed the sound economic advice of his many economists, the Depression may have been relieved much quicker.  Ironically, though Roosevelt did not follow a definite and unchanging plan when it came to his legislation, he was an unmistaken admirer and follower of Keynesian economics, a theory that stated that deficit spending during a Depression would provide the “prime” for a new age of prosperity.  The only constant of FDR’s variable policies was the continuous expenditure of money from the governmental treasury.  While the United States did begin to limp out of the Depression during Roosevelt’s terms, the New Deal was not touted as merely a means of slowly evolving America out of the depression, but rather a quick and direct path to prosperity.  In this sense, the New Deal failed completely.  It did not restore prosperity as promised, but provided the United States with limited aid and a growing deficit.  As practical as many of Roosevelt’s ideas were, he did not have the foresight to understand that he needed to have a plan, and that inventing new policies as the times demanded was not the most efficient way to restore the United State’s economy. 

Roosevelt will always be heralded as one of the greatest presidents of the twentieth century.  Similar to Ronald Regan, Roosevelt set precedents for his political party that would not be broken for decades to come.  Richard Hofstadter portrays Roosevelt in a less heroic light.  He claims that had Roosevelt lived to see the failure of many of his policies, that he would have not been nearly as highly regarded in the American mind.  Hofstadter asserts that Roosevelt’s untimely death was not so untimely and secured him a spot in American folklore as one of the most effective and active presidents the United States will ever see.  Roosevelt most certainly represented the desperation of the nineteen thirties better than any of his contemporaries.  His spastic and unidirectional legislation tactics made it painfully obvious that Roosevelt was not a man of purpose, but rather a man of action.  No policies were clearer on this indecision than his policies regarding big business.  Once an ally of business, Roosevelt took a sharp turn toward left legislation in his second term and effectively left big business in the dust.  Finally, Hofstadter claims that Roosevelt’s New Deal was not as successful as commonly assumed, and that World War II did more to elevate Roosevelt’s legend than any of his policies could ever do.  The New Deal obviously scored some victories, but it remained stunningly vain in the wake of a massive economic downturn.  The New Deal was not a success, for the simple reason that it did not succeed in what it intended to do.  It did not swiftly rescue the United States from economic ruin, nor did it prevent the economy from receding in the future.  Hofstadter’s views and descriptions of Roosevelt are surprisingly harsh, and his preference of Wilson over Roosevelt suggests a possible political or personal bias.  This can be explained be examining how relatively recent Hofstadter wrote his FDR essay.  It was written not long after the end of the Roosevelt era, and appears to reflect much resentment toward his fresh policies.  Regardless of the social success of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s economic legislationArticle Search, he will forever be remembered as an American hero.  How worthy he is of this distinguished honor is all a matter of interpretation.

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