FDR: The Greatest President Ever?

FDR: The Greatest President Ever?

Matthew Weber - March 16, 2017

Humans have a habit of ranking things. If there is more than one of something, we want to know, which was best? When it comes to Presidential history, it’s no different. Which president was the best? It’s a very hard question to answer, because it depends on so many things. For one, it depends on the politics of the person answering the question. Was George Washington best because he was first? Was Abraham Lincoln best because of his efforts to win the Civil War and keep the Union together?

The truth is there is no answer that would make everyone happy and agreeable. However there is a big argument to be made for Franklin Roosevelt. FDR had a tough job. He took up office in the midst of the greatest economic depression the country had ever seen, where unemployment was ranging around 20-27 percent and the banks were going out of business left and right. On top of all that, another World War was brewing thanks to Germany and their allies.

To gain a better idea of what FDR faced, let’s look at the United States at that time.

  • Unemployment was anywhere from 20 to 27 percent depending on what source you use. The problem is that the federal government didn’t even start collecting unemployment data until the mid 1940s.
  • By March 1933 when FDR took office, nearly half of the nation’s banks had failed.
  • The United States Treasury did not have enough money on hand to pay federal workers.
  • The stock market was a mess, and had been since the crash of 1929. Nobody was investing in anything by the time FDR took office in 1933.
  • Outside the US, war was already brewing, and would soon kick off. While the war wouldn’t really begin until 1939, tensions in Europe and the Pacific were already high. Since the first World War, the US had vacillated between isolationism and being the world’s policemen. FDR would support staunch isolationism until Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941.
FDR: The Greatest President Ever?

By the time Roosevelt took office in 1933, the Depression had been going strong for four years. People had little hope of it ending quickly, which led to the landslide victory for Roosevelt in his first election (472 to 59 in the Electoral College). The Republicans had held the presidency and both houses of Congress before the election of 1932. They lost all three.

That isn’t to say that the Hoover administration did nothing. In fact, Herbert Hoover accomplished a lot, it just wasn’t enough. The one thing FDR did that Hoover didn’t do was push program after program into the economy. The “New Deal” as he called it created enough investment in the economy to stop the landslide that had been going on since 1929.

What it comes down to, in reality, is regulation. Without getting too far into the economics of it all, one of the biggest causes is that there was little in the way of financial regulation for the stock market and the banking system. So when the Stock Market crashed in 1929, and the banks started to fail, there was wide spread panic, which kept escalating and far outpaced anything the Hoover administration did to stop the hemorrhaging.

When FDR took office, he immediately took action. He created what was the first of many “bank holidays” where all banks would shut down. He then started proposing regulations and programs that were meant to do two things: create jobs and regulate the financial system.

  • Civilian Conservation Corps aimed at giving jobs to young men. These jobs were focused on conservation and development of natural resources.
  • Public Works Administration was started to create jobs for government projects.
  • Works Progress Administration was the big one. It employed millions to work on public projects like roads and bridges.
  • The Emergency Banking Relief Act and Glass Steagall Act, both aimed at creating stability in the banking system. Glass Steagall created the FDIC.
  • The Securities and Exchange Commission was created to oversee the stock market, and create regulations to keep it from crashing once more.
  • The Social Security Administration created the first true long term entitlement, aimed at helping senior citizens.

There were many, many more of course, but you get the idea. Most of these were either in the first 100 days of FDR’s first term or within the first three years.

What we remember about FDR, however, are the true successes of the New Deal. Social Security and the FDIC are both still around today and have become things we take for granted.

By the time he died in office in 1945, unemployment was down to just two percent, which is almost unbelievable.

But there were failures and a lot to point out if you are arguing against placing Roosevelt as the best president ever. His isolationist policies could be argued to be the reason why World War II lasted so long. He proposed dozens of programs that either didn’t pass Congress or failed to be implemented properly. He took amazing amounts of power from the states and brought it to the federal government.

FDR: The Greatest President Ever?
Unemployment 1930s and 40s. American Social History Project

He was also not immediately successful. While unemployment did start going down after the New Deal, the Great Depression was far from over. In 1936, FDR attempted to stop the massive federal spending he was known for and unemployment started to rise one again. It wasn’t until he implemented the second New Deal that it started to fall once again.

He was also frustrated time and time again by the Supreme Court, which nixed many of his projects as unconstitutional. To solve this FDR tried to pack the court by adding six new justices, taking it from 9 to 15. This failed spectacularly.

So what do we have in the end? In reality it’s a mixed bag and can be argued either way. FDR was a great president, who had a ton of ideas when the United States need them most. A lot of those ideas are still around today. However, he is also likely the reason why the federal government is now so large. It is also probable that without World War II brewing in the background, many of the US’s economic problems wouldn’t have been solved so quickly. FDR was able to create a lot of jobs supporting the war effort even before the United States joined the fighting in 1941.

So what do you think? Was FDR the greatest ever? Let us know in comments!