Presidential Greatness: An Analysis of FDR’s Presidency Presidential greatness has many aspects, but it primarily means demonstrating effective, inspiring, visionary, and transformational leadership in times of great challenge and crisis. There have been many effective presidents, but there have only been a few great presidents because simply being effective and successful does not make one a great president.
The distinction between presidential effectiveness and presidential greatness is that presidential greatness can only be attained when the exceptional leadership, visionary, and transformational accomplishments of a president have a long-term positive impact and change the course of American history. Franklin D. Roosevelt achieved presidential greatness because he led the United States out of the Great Depression and to victory in the Second World War.
His transformational accomplishments during his four terms as president changed the course of American history because his comprehensive reform of the economic and banking systems revived the shattered economy and generated decades of prosperity. Also, his visionary leadership during the Second World War transformed the United States from an isolationist nation into a global superpower. FDR was also one of the nation’s great presidents for a number of other reasons.
He was the first and only president to be elected to an unprecedented four terms in office, (Some believe he might have even reached a fifth term if he hadn’t died in office) handing over the presidency to Harry Truman, He reacted bravely to the national emergency of Pearl Harbor, which entered the country into World War II, As mentioned before, he resurrected the country from the Great Depression, and he was the nation’s only disabled president. His presidency accomplished a great deal, and many of the programs he implemented while in office are still in place today.
Franklin Roosevelt was born in Hyde Park, New York on January 30, 1882, his parents were James Roosevelt and Sara Delanor Roosevelt, and he was an only child (of his father’s second marriage. He did have a much older brother who died in 1927). He did not attend traditional elementary schools or other schools because he had tutors and his parents taught him until he entered preparatory school. His parents were extremely wealthy; some considered them the “aristocracy” of American society. One iographer writes about his very privileged youth and notes, “His first trip to Europe, at the age of two, years, was followed by annum voyages between his eighth and fourteenth birthdays. At fourteen he was enrolled in the fashionable Groton School, and four years later he entered Harvard College” (Abbott 1990). He attended Groton from 1896 to 1900, and received a BA in history from Harvard in only three years, from 1900 to 1903. He studied law at Columbia University in New York where he never received a degree, but still passed the bar in 1907.
He practiced law in New York City for three years, and entered politics in 1910, when he ran for the New York State Senate and was elected. From then on, most of his life was spent in politics and public service (Biography 2007). In 1905, he married his distant cousin, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (the niece of former president Teddy Roosevelt), and they had six children; unfortunately, one died in infancy. The survivors included Anna, born in 1906, James in 1907, Elliott in 1910, Franklin, Jr. in 1914, and John in 1916.
His wife, known as Eleanor, would become one of the most famous first ladies in her own right, and is given much of the credit for Roosevelt re-entering politics after he contracted polio in 1921 Abbott 1990). Roosevelt was re-elected to the New York Senate in 1912, and began to receive national attention from the Democratic Party during this time. He supported Woodrow Wilson in the presidential election of 1912 and as a reward, Wilson named Roosevelt the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913, a position he held until 1920 (Abbott 1990).
This experience, which occurred during World War I, helped prepare him for dealing with World War II when he was president. In 1920, the Democratic Party offered him the position of Vice-President on the Democratic ticket, but Wilson’s foreign policies were unpopular, and Warren G. Harding was elected to office. As a result, for the first time since his Senate election, Roosevelt went back into private life (Biography 2007). This was perhaps the most influential and demanding time in Roosevelt’s life. Up until 1921, he had been a vigorous and healthy young man, enjoying sports as well as intellectual pursuits.
However, during a vacation at Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Roosevelt fell ill. He had contracted polio, and the disease paralyzed his legs. While he could sometimes struggle to his feet with the aid of canes or crutches, he spent the majority of the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He was only thirty-nine when he was stricken with the disease, but with encouragement from his wife and friends, he convalesced and then re-entered the political arena (Abbott 1990). In 1924, he nominated New York Governor Alfred E. Smith for the presidency.
Smith lost the nomination, but ran again in 1928; when he suggested Roosevelt replace him as governor. Roosevelt won the election for New York Governor in 1928, and was re-elected in 1930. In 1932, he was nominated as the Democratic candidate for the Presidency, which he won, defeating Herbert Hoover (Abbott 1990). One of the reasons Roosevelt was elected was his no-nonsense approach to the Great Depression that was gripping the country after the stock market crash in 1929. His solutions were unique, but they are lasting legacies to the man, his vision, and his approach to problems (Walker 2003).
Roosevelt knew the American people wanted a solution from the terrible days of the Great Depression. His first act as president was to create a special session of Congress that he called “The First Hundred Days. ” During these first one hundred days in office, he was determined to make sweeping changes that would help end the depression and get Americans back to work (Biography 2007). These first hundred days in office accomplished a wide variety of goals and objectives, and created many new government agencies set to deal with the economy, employment, and agriculture.
Some of the agencies he created in these first hundred days include the AAA which is the Agricultural Adjustment Administration to support farm prices and get people back to farming and agriculture, the CCC which is the Civilian Conservation Corps that employed young men across the country in forests and other natural areas, the FDIC which is the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to ensure funds in banks were ensured and the banks would not fail again, and the NRA which is the National Recovery Act that encouraged industry to voluntarily raise wages, regulate hours, and create employment (Biography 2007.
Roosevelt approached the Great Depression head on, creating a variety of measures set to get people back to work while shoring up the economy. One of the greatest problems of the Great Depression was severe unemployment, so Roosevelt created government agencies to put people back to work. However, another problem had been widespread bank failure because people rushed to the banks to take out their money all at once, and the banks could not cover all the deposits. When Roosevelt was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, the first thing he did was close all the banks n America on March 6 (Abbott 1990. They remained closed for one month to help them regain their equilibrium and funding. In an address to the nation in July 1933, he said, “One month later ninety per cent of the deposits in the national banks had been made available to the depositors. Today only about five per cent of the deposits in national banks are still tied up” (Roosevelt 1946). He also implemented the FDIC (still in existence today) to ensure the deposits in all banks are ensured in case of a disaster or panic; he knew this was a major priority of the first hundred days.
In his inaugural address to the nation he said, “In our progress toward a resumption of work, we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order: there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments, so that there will be an end to speculation with other people’s money; and there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency” (Roosevelt 1946). Banking was at the forefront of his policies in the first hundred days, but there were many other priorities, as well.
In addition to closing the banks and implementing many new federal agencies during the first hundred days, he and Congress drafted legislation regarding mortgages and loans. They created the Home Loan Act, the Farm Loan Act, and the Bankruptcy Act, which all helped safeguard property owners and workers who were out of work. There were also stricter regulations for the stock market, which had essentially created the Great Depression when it crashed in October 1929. He also created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), which Congress allocated millions of dollars to help those in the most need around the country Biography 2007).
However, Roosevelt did not sit back after the first one hundred days in office. The Great Depression essentially continued throughout the 30s until the advent of World War II, and because of this, Roosevelt continued to create programs and agencies that would help the country get back on its feet throughout his administrations. Roosevelt knew one hundred days would not be enough to cure the ills of the country, and so, he created new policies throughout his first administration. Many of these policies are referred to as the New Deal, which continued through 1936 and the next presidential election.
Some of the most meaningful legislation that occurred during the New Deal was the Works Projects Administration (WPA), which was a far-reaching program to put Americans back to work. The WPA implemented a huge building program including dams and other public works projects that employed Americans all over the country; it was a time of massive exploration and building, from highways to public buildings and monuments. The project was meant to put blue-collar workers back to work, but it also designated programs for artists, photographers, writers, and other creative white-collar workers who were also desperate for work (Abbott 1990).
The New Deal also created various social programs aimed at helping people get back to work, but also to ensure all those in society were taken care of. Roosevelt created the Social Security Act in 1935 that would provide monthly payments to everyone over the age of 65, and would provide benefits to surviving spouses and disabled people as well; The Social Security Act is still in existence today and still provides income and assistance for millions of Americans. One writer calls Social Security one of Roosevelt’s most enduring legacies.
He writes, “Roosevelt’s other profound legacy, the transformation of the federal government into an instrument of income redistribution through Social Security, which established the responsibility of the state for the welfare of its elderly citizens” (Walker 2003). It was relatively unheard of at the time, and it is one of Roosevelt’s enduring legacies. Many of these programs were initiated by Roosevelt and his advisors and then sent to Congress, while Congress passed and modified several acts on their own.
Much of this depended on Roosevelt closely working with Congress and selling his policies to the American people, which he did with weekly radio broadcasts that he called “Fireside Chats. ” Many of these “chats” have been preserved on tape and in print, and they show a man who was determined to end the depression and put Americans back to work, no matter the cost or difficulties involved. Many critics of Roosevelt and his policies felt his policies were too liberal or socialistic, and that he put the country in deficit spending.
As the country began to slowly emerge from the Great Depression, production and jobs did begin to increase, but it was the war in Europe that really brought the country out of the depression. Because of events in Europe and Asia, Roosevelt also had to deal with foreign policies and increasing world tensions on the eve of World War II (Abbott 1990). Presenting an informed analysis of the main controversial issues surrounding the Office of the presidency requires examining how a president deals with controversies nd frames issues in order to generate public support for him and diminish public support for his political opponents. For example, the expansion of direct government intervention in the economy was controversial, but FDR framed it as an absolute necessity and a course of action that would have long-term positive effects (Landy and Milkis 2001). FDR achieved presidential greatness through effective, visionary, and inspiring leadership during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, when an unprecedented economic crisis destroyed the confidence of the American people in their government and economic system.
Through fireside chats, speeches to the nation, and direct interaction with Americans during his travels throughout the United States, he inspired Americans to believe in themselves, restored their confidence in government, and demonstrated the self-confidence, courage and determination required of presidents when crisis threatens and the survival of the nation is at stake (Neustadt 1991).
During the Great Depression, FDR faced specific challenges such as massive unemployment, the collapse of the banking system, loss of public confidence in the government, and the threat that fascism or communism would emerge in the United States (Rothbard 2000). He was trying to achieve a restoration of economic stability, but in a broader economic context, he was trying to reform the banking and economic systems because greed and corruption had been the primary causes of the stock market crash in 1929 which had triggered the Great Depression.
Critically examining the aspects of leadership and the ways in which to evaluate the success or failure of presidents requires analyzing whether they achieved their goals and whether their achievements had a long-term positive impact. FDR’s transformational accomplishments in his first two terms demonstrate that the distinction between presidential greatness and presidential effectiveness is based upon the scale and historical impact of a president’s effectiveness.
For example, FDR’s comprehensive economic and banking reforms not only had a short-term positive impact on the entire nation, but a long-term one as well (Landy and Milkis 2001). If FDR’s actions as president had only had a short-term positive impact, he would have been seen as an effective president but not as a great president. His transformational impact on American government demonstrates that aspects of leadership such as a visionary approach to governing play a vital role in determining whether a president achieves reatness or is merely effective over the short-term. In terms of historical and political context, FDR governed during the worst depression in American history, when one out of every three Americans was out of work and the danger of complete economic collapse was very real. When conditions are so bad for so many people, frustration and anger can intensify to such an extent that violence and chaos spread throughout society. Economic collapse can and often does lead to the collapse of the political system and results in revolution or dictatorship.
Fortunately, this dire outcome was avoided because FDR was very effective during his first one-hundred days as president (Neustadt 1991). Critically important legislation was passed in Congress and his leadership convinced millions of Americans that the ideals of courage, determination, and hard work would get America through the Great Depression. His effectiveness continued throughout the rest of his first term because he brought the American economy back from the brink of complete collapse and generated jobs Through programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration.
In discussing the relevant scholarly literature on presidential greatness, it is evident that historians and political scientists are in general agreement that FDR was a great president because his leadership style was inspirational and was characterized by charismatic, transformational, and situational elements of leadership. Furthermore, as Erwin Hargrove notes in his book The Effective Presidency, “political leadership must contain a moral element and must be in accord with the ideals embedded in American culture if it is to be fully effective” (Hargrove 2008).
These elements were reflected in FDR’s New Deal policies, which were based upon the traditional American ideals of fairness and equality. His New Deal agenda was transformational in a political and economic context, and many of his economic and political policy responses to the Great Depression reflected his rejection of Hoover’s failed policies and determination to restore fairness and equality to America’s economic system (Rothbard 2000). As the discussion on Chapter 12 of Debating the Presidency notes, “great leadership requires being an agent of democratic change” (Ellis and Nelson 2009).
FDR was an agent of democratic change during the Great Depression and achieved this change through communicating effectively in order to generate and maintain public support for his transformational New Deal policies. His fireside chats and public speeches restored the faith of American citizens in their government and his New Deal Programs were exactly what were needed for economic recovery. During the New Deal, Roosevelt again ran for the presidency and was overwhelmingly re-elected in 1936. He continued his work domestically, but began to broaden his foreign outlook as well.
He was again re-elected in 1940, after Germany invaded Poland, which marked the beginning of World War II in Europe. In 1940, Roosevelt ran as a peace candidate who promised to keep the country out of the war (Biography 2007); That would all change of course, at the end of 1941. Roosevelt’s foreign policies were complex and vastly important to the nation. In 1933, as a reaction to trade difficulties with Central and South America, Roosevelt created the Good Neighbor Policy, which “emphasized cooperation and trade rather than military force to maintain stability in the hemisphere” (Good Neighbor Policy 2003).
Throughout the early 1930s, Roosevelt continued to work for foreign peace and against intervention by one country into another. Roosevelt first spoke of his good neighbor policy during his inaugural address, so it was not a new idea that came into being as the situation in Europe deteriorated. He says, “In the field of world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor–the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others” (Roosevelt 1946). In a 1935 speech, he continued this theme.
He states, “The primary purpose of the United States of America is to avoid being drawn into war. We seek also in every practicable way to promote peace and to discourage war” (Roosevelt 1946). Many critics of Roosevelt felt the policy was isolationist and kept the United States from interacting with European nations during a time of crisis, but at the time, most people supported the policy and hoped to keep out of the war in Europe. While America remained a neutral ally in the first years of World War II, Roosevelt recognized the threat Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party represented to Europe and democracy.
In May, 1941 he says of Hitler, “Adolf Hitler never considered the domination of Europe as an end in itself. European conquest was but a step toward ultimate goals in all the other continents. It is unmistakably apparent to all of us that, unless the advance of Hitlerism is forcibly checked now, the Western Hemisphere will be in range of the Nazi weapons of destruction” (Abbott 1990); He recognized Hitler was a great threat, but still felt Europe could combat him on their own and without American intervention.
In his attempt to keep Hitler from world domination, he gave aid to Great Britain with sea escorts to help ensure supplies arrived safely, and provided them with weapons and ammunition (Abbott 1990). In another address in October 1941, he notes, “For example, I have in my possession a secret map made in Germany by Hitler’s government by the planners of the new world order. It is a map of South America and a part of Central America, as Hitler proposes to reorganize it” (Roosevelt 1946).
Roosevelt recognized Hitler’s menace, but it was the Japanese who would force him to actually put the United States in jeopardy in Europe and Asia. On December 7, 1941, at approximately 8am (Hawaii Time), the Japanese attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the United States was sucked into World War II. Roosevelt’s speech to Congress called the attack “a day which will live in infamy” (Roosevelt 1946), and it is still recognized as one of the darkest days in American history, outdone only by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Immediately after hearing about the attack, Roosevelt drafted a speech he would deliver to Congress the next day on December 8. In it, he asked Congress to declare war on Japan, and because Japan was an ally of Germany, Germany as well. This brought the U. S. directly into World War II. In the speech, he noted Japan had launched several simultaneous attacks against other Pacific nations such as Hong Kong and Midway Island. He says, “Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday speak for themselves.
The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation” (Roosevelt 1946); However, Roosevelt did not simply ask Congress to declare war and then did nothing to support it. As expected, Roosevelt quickly had a broad plan that would help ensure American superiority in machinery and manpower. In a December 9 address to the nation, he noted he was asking any industry involved in warfare machinery or production to work seven days a week at increased production.
He also urged companies to build more new plants quickly, so they could add to the production of wartime necessities, such as planes, ships, ammunition, and transportation. At first, rationing did not take place, but later during the war, Roosevelt would implant food and some material rationing, such as gas and rubber, to ensure there were enough raw materials to service the armed forces first (Abbott 1990). By early 1942, however, rationing was in place, and the American people were getting used to doing without everything from sugar to butter and nylon stockings.
Roosevelt went into action immediately after the attacks on Pearl Harbor and showed the nation a strong and determined man who was resolute in righting the wrong against the American people. He brought the country into the war as a safety measure, and then ensured the American production industry was up to the challenge. He also met with allied leaders many times in an attempt to forge peace, but he would not live to see it. Of course, the United States went on to dominate the war, winning the European war on “V-E Day;” After that, Eventually, Germany did finally sign a surrender in Berlin.
Victory in the Pacific came on August 15, 1945, (V-J Day) when Japanese Emperor Hirohito signed the articles of surrender on board a U. S. ship anchored off the coast of Japan; But Roosevelt did not live to see peace; he died in April 1945. FDR was a very effective president during the Second World War because he inspired unity, projected determination, and generated nationwide public confidence in victory by demonstrating his own confidence in victory.
This projection of presidential determination and confidence was particularly important early in the war when Allied defeats in Europe and the Pacific were all too common; He provided reassurance to the American people that the war would be won. All of these elements of greatness were evident during FDR’s first two terms as president, and his inspirational leadership during these years was the foundation for his effectiveness and success as president during the Second World War.
Through his leadership and actions during the Great Depression, he had forged a bond of trust with the American people, and their trust in him and confidence in his leadership motivated them to make the great sacrifices necessary to win the global war against fascism and Nazism. The United States had never suffered a defeat as shocking as Pearl Harbor, and had never faced such powerful enemies, so it was extremely important for FDR to demonstrate determination and confidence (Schoenberg 2009).
He understood how critical the psychological aspects of leadership are, and this is one of the significant distinctions that separate effective presidents from great presidents. In that context, implementing good policies and making good decisions are not enough because achieving presidential greatness requires combining good policies and good decisions with visionary leadership and a deep understanding of history (Gergen 2001).
FDR understood the importance of these elements, as well as the foundational importance of instilling public trust and confidence in the government and in the president as the chief executive. Great presidents achieve this while focusing on assuring the public that even the toughest of challenges can be met and overcome. Connections are evident between the development of the presidency and the history of democracy in the United States because weak and ineffective presidents have undermined public faith and confidence in democracy, while great presidents have generated it.
As the presidency developed, democracy developed along with it in accordance with how well presidents performed in their constitutional role as chief executives. Strong, decisive, and assertive presidents like Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and Lyndon Johnson expanded the powers of the presidency and rendered Congress secondary in political influence and importance, while weaker presidents diminished them, which resulted in Congressional dominance over the federal government and policy making.
Historians and political scientists have debated the effectiveness of FDR’s presidency, and one of their most important assessments has been that the courage and determination he had to summon in order to overcome polio were the foundation of his effectiveness and success as president (Schoenberg 2009). These character strengths were ultimately the most important sources of FDR’s success as president because he relied upon them to overcome great political and economic challenges. In conclusion, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt is one of the great American presidents; He accomplished so much during his twelve years in office.
He campaigned for the presidency and was elected despite the crippling physical impact of polio, a debilitating disease which would have prevented most people from even considering running for local or state public office, much less for the Presidency of the United States, He helped bring the country out of the Great Depression, led the country into war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and created some of the most far reaching and memorable legislation and government agencies in the history of the presidency.
There is another legacy that can never be taken away from Roosevelt. After he died, Congress passed legislation that no president could serve more than two terms in office. Roosevelt was the only man elected to four terms, and unless Congress modifies the legislation, he will remain the only man to ever do so (Walker 2003. FDR’s courage and determination, which were forged during his struggle to overcome the physical limitations polio imposed, enabled him to be very effective throughout his presidency.
During his first two terms as president, FDR was an agent of democratic change and provided the inspiring, confidence-building, and transformational leadership necessary for the United States to overcome the ravages of the Great Depression (Ellis and Nelson 2009). During his second two terms as president he provided the inspiring, confidence-building, and transformational leadership necessary to transform the United States from an isolationist nation into a global superpower capable of defeating the Axis powers during the Second World War.
He will always be remembered for proclaiming, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself” during his first Inaugural Address in 1933 (Roosevelt 1946). These words epitomized how Americans must respond to great challenges, especially in times of crisis. These dramatic words inspired the entire nation and clarified the importance of courage and determination in overcoming great challenges. The great president who proclaimed them provided not only a positive example for every American during his first months in office, he provided an inspiring example for them to emulate throughout his entire presidency.
Works Cited Abbott, Philip. “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition. ” Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990. Retrieved on 7 Dec. 2009. Gergen, David. “Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership Nixon to Clinton. ” New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001. Retrieved on 10 Dec. 2009. Editors. “Good Neighbor Policy: 1933. ” U. S. Department of State. 2007. Retrieved on 7 Dec. 2009.