Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: Roosevelt and the New Deal

Editor’s note: This is the 62nd in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) to the presidency in 1932 marks a decisive turning point in this nation’s history. The policies he put into practice during the first term of his administration changed the character of the nation, from one whose economic and social fortunes were directed by unregulated, laissez faire capitalism, by the self-serving exploits of economic adventurers, a.k.a, “robber barons” and their ilk, to a social democracy in which government assumed a prominent role in regulating industrial and financial practices, providing jobs for the unemployed, and protecting its citizens from harm caused by capitalist misadventures that were inimical to the public good. The federal government became the chief protector of its citizens, and the guarantor of their social security. In the end, the New Deal, which was the name Roosevelt gave to his program of economic recovery, did not accomplish all of its goals completely; but it redefined the nation’s destiny, which, notwithstanding many reverses, is still on the horizon, a promise that always beckons, and which may in future deliver this nation from the new dark age in which we have fallen.
Roosevelt’s accomplishments, during the depression and the war that followed, are all the more remarkable, given the physical handicap he had to overcome to achieve them. In his youth and early manhood, he was well favored and well endowed. He was a born aristocrat, member of a distinguished family, of great wealth, and educated at Harvard and Columbia Law School. Frances Perkins (1882–1965), who would later serve as his secretary of labor for 13 years — the first woman to serve as a cabinet secretary — and who knew him socially, described the young Franklin as “a supercilious snob, who really didn’t seem to like people very much.” In coming years, this attitude would reverse itself, and this once proud aristocrat became the common man’s best friend, motivated by a powerful political ambition coupled with a genuine and captivating friendliness. 
In 1907, Roosevelt passed the bar exam, and left law school without completing his studies. He practiced law for a while, but his real interest was not in business but politics. In 1911 he was elected to the New York State Senate, where he gained a reputation as a reformer, a champion of progressive policies, and a formidable enemy of political bosses. Re-elected for a second term, he resigned his seat in order to accept Woodrow Wilson’s appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy, where he remained until Wilson left office in 1920. In the same year, at the Democratic national convention, he received the vice-presidential nomination, and ran unsuccessfully with James M. Cox, the presidential nominee, against the Republican duo of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Not long after, he was stricken with polio. He became paralyzed from the waist down and spent the next eight years in rehabilitation and planning for his future. In 1928 he was elected governor of New York; he was re-elected in 1930, and set his eyes on the presidency. Elected in 1932, he was re-elected in 1936, 1940 and 1944, and died in office on April 12, 1945. He was 63 years old.
Just what was the New Deal? It was not a plan to restore the nation’s economy; rather, its purpose was to put people to work; Roosevelt called it “work relief.” And he set about to achieve this through a massive program of public works. Two government agencies were created to achieve this: the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The former provided loans and grants to states to engage in public works projects; the latter provided employment through the construction of public buildings: schools, hospitals, libraries, post offices, courthouses and suchlike, along with roads, bridges, and water and sewer lines, and it brought about the electrification of rural areas. It also gave support to the creative and performing arts through the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, and the Federal Writers’ Project. These programs not only provided jobs for artists and writers, but also produced a cultural renaissance.
Historians have noted that, in spite of the extraordinary measures taken to remedy the grave effects of the Great Depression, the government of the United States came through it all safe and sound. Although there was no doubt the nation was in the midst of a national emergency of great magnitude and that strong executive leadership was needed to see it through, Roosevelt did not exceed the constitutional powers of the president to achieve them. During the first hundred days of his presidency, he called Congress in session and worked closely with it to provide new laws and authorize additional funds needed to meet the current crisis. The separation of powers remained secure; the Constitution unscathed; the rule of law prevailed. The great economist John Maynard Keynes described Roosevelt’s policies as “reasoned experiments within an existing social system.” In this respect, Roosevelt stood apart from other national leaders: Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin, who justified their seizure of power and dictatorial methods as the only sure way to achieve the stability and renewal of their nations. They were mistaken, and the great cost of their mistakes is beyond all counting, and the horrors they caused, too painful to describe. 
In planning and executing his program of social reform, Franklin Roosevelt could rely on the wise counsel and public example of his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962). She was not only the longest serving First Lady, she was the first to use her position to political advantage in pursuit of social programs that went beyond those of the New Deal; she was a skilled communicator, indefatigable, highly principled and fully capable to carry out the duties of president. Her deep compassion for ordinary people led Harry Truman to call her “The First Lady of the world.” She became the moral conscience of America. More will follow in a subsequent essay.

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