William Leuchtenburg's Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal is a text that combines recent American history with a political and sociological analysis of American policy and government, and adds a healthy dose of biography of the president to give the mixture human drama. Leuchtenburg is able to accomplish this literary feat not simply because he is such a skilled historian, but because Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his cabinet exercised a unique degree of power over the American economy of his day. America was in an economic crisis when Roosevelt came to be elected the presidency. To remedy this crisis, Roosevelt essentially had to overhaul the American system of government and the relationship of the federal government to the citizenry. He created the modern social welfare system, the concept of the 'safety net' for the needy, and a sense of government's social obligations as well as a citizen's obligations to the nation.
Thus, from an earlier area of lasses-faire, the architecture of the social welfare state still in existence today came into fullest being under Roosevelt's command. Thus, the book is not merely a tale of the man who shaped the economic policies that began to give America hope and wrest America out of the economic grasp of the Great Depression. It is also a tale of America itself, of a time where America was questioning its relationship of government to the people. When "at least a million, perhaps as many as two millions were wandering the country" in search of work and "on the outskirts of town or in empty lots in the big cities, homeless men threw together makeshift shacks of boxes and scrap metal, called, after Roosevelt's predecessor, "Hoovervilles," it was difficult to justify the Horatio Alger ideology that anyone could prosper on America's golden streets without help from the government, provided he or she had a bit of luck and pluck. (2-3)
Instead, in the wake of the Great Crash and the even greater worldwide depression, "like a drowning swimmer struggling to keep his head above water, the middle-class man fought frantically to maintain his social status." (119) Bankers stood side by side the men and women whom they had once commanded in bread lines, causing some citizens to question capitalism in general. Leuchtenburg sees the greatness of the Roosevelt administration in its ability to was reject out and out laissez faire economic strategies, as advocated by conservative, Republican monetarists, yet the administration also "shrank from embracing socialism," an ideology tempting not only to radicals but to many desperate Americans during what Leuchtenburg sees as this uniquely desperate time. (57)
Roosevelt gave America psychological and economic confidence in itself again. During his term, Americans went from calling the slums they lived after the name of the preceding president "Hoovervilles" to a near-lionization of his eventually four-times elected successor. How did Roosevelt restore trust in America's government in the hearts of the American public? Leuchtenberg attempts to show that Roosevelt was not always a near-deity in the public's eyes, but worked hard to establish such a trust. It is worth remembering that the original edition of this author's text was published in 1963, when the Great Depression would have been still quite fresh in many of his reader's minds -- only thirty years hence, in fact. Greater distance in years separates the current generation reading this text from the first readers of the biography.
Leuchtenburg reminds the reader that in terms of Roosevelt's first facing a presidential election, "as the party in power during hard times," the Republicans seemed to face "almost certain defeat in the 1932 elections. President Herbert Hoover could escape repudiation only if the Democrats permitted internal divisions to destroy them."(6) But the economic crisis was so severe; the Democrats found it difficult to come to an agreement and not to squabble over the best way to cope with the current situation. William Leuchtenburg notes that the policy of social welfare and government intervention eventually pursued by Roosevelt was not necessarily the obvious strategy. In fact, in terms of the Democratic Party's criticism of Hoover, "there was some prospect that the Democrats might support a more fiscally conservative candidate. National Democratic Party leaders" in fact, were apt to criticize then-President Hoover "not because he had done too little but because he had done too much," in terms of intervening in the economy of the United States. (6)
But although Liberal Democrats were somewhat uneasy about Roosevelt's reputation as a fiscal budget-cutter, "and disturbed by the vagueness of his formulas for recovery," no other serious candidate had such good claims on progressive support, and as Governor of New York, Roosevelt had created the first comprehensive system of unemployment relief. (6) To progressive approval, he had supported taxes that penalized the rich, such as increasing the estate tax, during his time as governor. He also had campaigned against increasing the sales tax, a regressive tax, during his tenure, despite the need for more funds, because this tax uniformly penalized all consumers, rich and poor. Roosevelt, as a man, also had additional cache to democrats because he had stood flagrantly against the Roosevelt family tradition simply by becoming a Democrat. Of course, his most famous ancestor was Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, the Republican president at the turn of the century -- not so far from the public's memory in 1932.
When the new President Roosevelt's progressivism became clear, labor leaders were jubilant. "Boys-this is our hour," one of them exulted. "We've got to get everything we want -- a works program, social security, wages and hours, everything-now or never."(103) However, although Roosevelt supported organized labor's agenda through many of his programs, he was never simply pro-union. Roosevelt deserves credit for his skillful balancing of the needs of the American worker of his day, and the concerns of private industry, which was in a flagging state. For instance, the new Works Public Association, or WPA, as the "new agency was called, was not permitted to compete with private industry or to usurp regular governmental work." (125)
True, many WPA projects "were make-work assignments of scant value." (125) Workers received "as little as $19 a month in some areas."(130) But overall, the effects of the federal relief and jobs were better than the nothing much of the American public was receiving before from the government. These programs created by the administration lifted the spirits of the American public, and caused the consumer to become a consumer again and to feel courage to buy from American stores and save again in American banks. American began to trust its government again, too. Roosevelt understood, intuitively and intellectually, the critical role confidence played in economic recovery and growth. Furthermore, The WPA's Federal Theatre Project employed actors, directors, and other craftsmen to produce plays, circuses, vaudeville shows, and marionette performances, creating a new tradition of federal investment in the arts and a connection between the movie industry and the administration that was later to benefit the war propaganda efforts well.
Leuchtenburg stresses that Roosevelt's administration was founded upon a balance, a balance between what he calls the advocates of New Freedom who supported large, planned economies and were suspicious of free competition, and the New Nationalists who were believed trust busting would return small businesses to prominence in America. New Nationalists largely presided over the early New Deal while the second phase of the New Deal was dominated by a greater tolerance of small businesses in the New Freedom tradition. But Roosevelt always balanced the two competing economic ideologies, never seeking a singular answer, and here was his strength as a leader. Leuchtenburg believes.
Leuchtenburg focuses specifically on the New Deal, an important lens, given that the focus on the Roosevelt presidency could be split by the eventual "fascist challenge" that split the nation.…