Many Americans are worried that the newly passed tax overhaul could lead to substantial cuts to Social Security and other entitlement programs. While these benefits are now an established part of working in America, they were once radical proposals from a president in crisis — Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Roosevelt’s accomplishments and shortcomings make up historian Robert Dallek’s latest biography. Dallek chose to profile the 32nd president because of today’s political divisiveness.
“I think it’s important for people to recall what effective leadership could look like,” he said. Dallek shared this and other insights from his book in a conversation with Elliot Gerson, executive vice president of policy and public programs for the Aspen Institute.
As a leading authority on the presidency, Dallek considers Roosevelt to be one of the greats. Roosevelt entered the White House in the middle of the Great Depression. Unemployment had skyrocketed to nearly 25 percent and workers who had been middle class found themselves peddling five-cent apples on the street. Although Roosevelt did not know exactly how to turn the tide, he understood the need to renew Americans’ faith in the economy.
“He didn’t end the depression,” Dallek said. “He did something more important. He humanized the American industrial system.” Roosevelt’s New Deal produced the Social Security Act, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Works Progress Administration, and other programs that provided relief for unemployed workers and helped restore trust in US banks. In doing so, Dallek believes Roosevelt saved the economic and the political systems.
Crucial to Roosevelt’s success as a president was his ability to connect to the public. His series of fireside chats allowed him to explain his policies and actions during the depression and later World War II. Before the American public, Roosevelt conveyed a self-assured tone that belied his inner frustrations.
Roosevelt’s 12 years in office were marked by deep cultural divisions in the country. He did his best to navigate these rifts, but his efforts to maintain the support of Democrats in the South exposed his failings. “He never went out of his way to work especially hard for African Americans,” Dallek said. “He wouldn’t support the anti-lynching legislation that kept coming up in Congress.” Roosevelt’s protégé Lyndon Johnson would later preside over sweeping civil rights legislation in the wake of mass protests and civil disobedience.
Roosevelt struggled with the isolationist and anti-war attitudes of the American people. Although personally troubled by Hitler’s aggressions, he had promised to keep the country out of another European war. Behind the scenes Roosevelt took concrete steps to expand and re-equip the military while quietly financing the Allied powers. The US remained neutral during World War II until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt’s efforts helped the Allies defeat Hitler, though he died five months before the war ended.
Throughout his time in office, Roosevelt cemented America’s leadership role on the world stage. His ability to show personal courage during the country’s darkest times helped him build trust with voters who knew he was willing to put them first. For Dallek, this is what made him one of our finest presidents.
“Everyone who runs for president has a powerful narcissistic streak,” he said. “But the great ones move outside themselves and reach for larger things for the nation.”
Watch the full conversation below.