Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was an incredible president, wasn't he? His earth-shattering New Deal and social security drug us out of the Great Depression and provided millions of jobs for the unemployed.
This is what you are likely to hear in nearly every classroom in the United States. They begin by teaching about how terrible Herbert Hoover was (being a republican capitalist and all) and continue by preaching the gospel of FDR and his incredible accomplishments. But a lot is missed with that interpretation of history. History books gloss over the '30s and simply say something along the lines of "...And FDR's New Deal brought the U.S. out of the Great Depression. Later, in 1941..."
To better understand the conditions of America going into FDR's presidency, we should first talk about Herbert Hoover, FDR's predecessor. Herbert Hoover began his political career as a Democrat, taking part in the DNC of 1920. Later, however, he switched sides, and he ran for president in 1928 eventually winning as a moderate Republican candidate. At what was essentially the beginning of his presidency, Black Tuesday struck. The economy tanked, and millions were put out of work.
Then, came Hoover's tax hikes. Hoover had no answer for the economic decline he was overseeing, so his solution - more government spending. He drastically raised taxes on everyone, taxing those in the highest tax bracket a whopping 63%! This tax increase had the exact opposite effect that Hoover had hoped. In 1932, the year the tax hikes were implemented, unemployment increased by nearly 8%.
This brings us to FDR. Fed up with a declining economy and staggering unemployment rates, the American people were ready for just about anyone other than Herbert Hoover. His tax increases had done nothing to solve the problems at hand and had only increased the tax burden on Americans. FDR ran against Hoover as a Democrat and promised great reform. He swore to do away with Prohibition and to drastically CUT taxes.
Americans bought into these promises, and FDR won by a landslide in the election of 1932. Contrary to his original campaign promises, however, within his first 100 days in office, FDR had signed into effect the New Deal. This new program would DRASTICALLY increase government spending and it would put into effect laws that would give the government the power to regulate the economy in ways it never had before. He also implemented social security, which created even more government spending. It was then, and still is today, a broken system, which is basically a statement from the government declaring that the average American is too stupid to plan for their own retirement.
But there was a lot of backlash from the Supreme Court against FDR, and they struck down many of his laws as unconstitutional. Naturally angry at these checks being administered on his power, FDR proposed a law to Congress that would give him the power to remove any supreme court justices that were above the age of 70 years and 6 months. It was a naked attempt to force the Supreme Court to accept his laws for what they were, and to allow them to exist, constitutional or not. This move worked. The Supreme Court capitulated, and for the rest of his terms in office, they would act as FDR's stamp of approval for all that he did.
Students are expected to take for granted the fact that Roosevelt's New Deal worked. The fact of the matter is, the New Deal was not effective. In fact, it could even be argued that it prolonged the Depression, and prevented a relatively speedy recovery following the stock market crash of 1929.
There was not a single point in the 1930s in which the unemployment rates were below 14%. In fact, it wouldn't be until the beginning of America's involvement in WWII that unemployment numbers would actually recover in any meaningful way. The New Deal led to huge government spending increases, and the year after it was implemented it brought unemployment down from 24.9% to 21.7%. That is the "huge" improvement that the New Deal is universally praised for.
FDR wasn't just a bad president for breaking his campaign promises, increasing government spending, extreme government involvement in business, or even silencing the Supreme Court and greatly reducing their power during his presidency. His most drastic and most impactful actions came in his changes to the role of the executive branch.
Many of you may be aware of the fact that every year, the president will present a budget to congress, telling them how much they are allowed to spend. It wasn't always like this. The constitution specifically gives the power of the budget to congress, so how did this become the president's job? The answer? Roosevelt. He sought this power in an effort to allocate more spending for his New Deal. With a few strokes of his pen, he passed executive orders placing this power under the executive branch. No one questioned these actions. After all, what harm could it do? In these trying times, we have much bigger things to worry about. It has been a presidential privilege ever since.
Speaking of executive orders, isn't it really annoying how a president will be elected and immediately just start signing laws into effect without any approval from Congress? Well, we have Roosevelt to thank for that. Previously, executive orders were primarily used to help with the execution of laws passed by Congress. FDR felt they could be used for far more than that. Why fight endlessly to get a bill passed through a congress who can never agree on anything, when you could just do it all yourself? Hence, the modern executive order was born.
Did you also know, that treaties with other nations actually used to be approved by Congress? Well FDR didn't like that either, so he invented the executive agreement. This had basically the same effect as a treaty, but it did not need to be approved by Congress. This is why we have agreements like NAFTA today.
The last, but finally not least, of FDR's power grabs were his several consecutive elections. While the New Deal was not effective in improving the economy, it turns out that people like getting free stuff, so it was massively effective in increasing FDR's standing with the American working class. FDR used this popularity to get away with everything stated above, as well as getting elected to the presidency FOUR times. Had he not died while in office, he likely would have continued to seek reelection. This was the only one of his many power grabs that would lead to a constitutional amendment, (the 22nd) to ensure it would never happen again.
In short, FDR was a terrible president. Before him, the president and Congress worked closely but separately, checking each other along the way, while the Supreme Court ensured they both toed the line. After his presidency, executive power was drastically increased, and the executive branch became a nearly uncontested position of power. FDR broke the checks and balances system put in place by our founding fathers, and unfortunately, history books will never hold him accountable for his clear abuse of power.
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