Why the Candidates Still Use FDR as Their Measure

Since FDR, we expect our Presidents to steel our moral will, move the country forward, and slay the dragons of crisis.

The conclusion is one with which most scholars would agree: that Franklin Roosevelt was, to use the philosopher Sidney Hook’s terminology, an “event-making man” who not only was shaped by but also shaped his age. He comprehended both the opportunity that the Great Depression offered to alter the direction of American politics and the menace Hitler posed to the nation, and as a consequence of both perceptions, America, and indeed the world, differed markedly in 1945 from what it had been in 1933, to no small degree because of his actions.

Roosevelt is one of the few American Presidents who loom large not just in the history of the United States but in the history of the world. The economist John Kenneth Galbraith has spoken of the “Bismarck-Lloyd George-Roosevelt Revolution,” and Lloyd George himself called FDR the “greatest reforming statesman of the age.”

Setting the Standard

Because Roosevelt “discovered in his office possibilities of leadership which even Lincoln had ignored,” wrote the Oxford don Herbert Nicholas, it is hardly surprising that he continues to be the standard by which American Presidents, more than forty years after his death, continue to be measured. When the stock market slumped in the fall of 1987, the White House correspondent of the Washington Post, Lou Cannon, wrote a column that appeared under the headline REAGAN SHOULD EMULATE FDR. NOT HOOVER. Cannon, noting that “President Reagan has spent much of his public career emulating the style and cheerful confidence of his first political hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt,” maintained that in dealing with the financial crisis, Reagan could “dodge the legacy of Roosevelt’s luckless predecessor, Herbert Hoover,” only “if he is willing to behave like FDR.”

Even in an era when the country is said to have moved in a more conservative direction and the FDR coalition no longer is as potent as it once was, the memory of Franklin Roosevelt is still green. As the political scientist Thomas E. Cronin has observed, “With the New Deal Presidency firmly fixed in memory…we now expect our Presidents to be vigorous and moral leaders, who can steel our moral will, move the country forward, bring about dramatic and swift policy changes, and slay the dragons of crisis. An FDR halo effect has measurably shaped public attitudes toward the Presidency, persisting even today....So embellished are some of our expectations that we virtually push…candidates into poses akin to the second coming of FDR.”