Franklin Delano Roosevelt was arguably America’s greatest president ever, having brought them out of the Great Depression and to victory in World War 2. And now is a better time than ever to start drawing comparisons between FDR and President Trump.
Roosevelt’s story as the 32nd president of the United States is relatively understated in mainstream media. I would argue that, if not for him, America wouldn’t be the global powerhouse that it is today. No president that came after Roosevelt ever even came close to meeting the benchmark he set. But now, the Trump administration is facing a similar set of circumstances to that which Roosevelt had to face – a collapsed economy and global war.
Today’s war is not a hot war (yet); it’s the coronavirus pandemic. Our enemy is invisible to the naked eye – which makes it significantly harder as well. We find people comparing this moment in history to the Spanish Influenza pandemic in 1918. I think it is more applicable to compare the global state of affairs to World War 2. And it would be intellectually lazy to compare Trump to Adolf Hitler. Roosevelt is a far more interesting, relevant leader to compare Trump. Why? Well not only was he the president of America, not Germany, but the circumstances for America right now and over the course of FDR’s 12-year presidency are very very similar.
Wait? Roosevelt’s 12-year presidency? Isn’t there a two-term limit for American presidents? Yeah, he’s the reason America has a two-term limit. If anyone replicated his political strategy, they’d win elections forever. He actually won four presidential elections and literally had to die for people to stop voting for him. So let’s look at Roosevelt’s story with the American economy, in comparison to Trump’s.
Great Depression (2.0?)
Roosevelt directed the federal government during most of the Great Depression, having taken office in 1933, after his two terms as governor of New York under the presidency of Herbert Hoover (who took office shortly before the onset of the Depression).
Roosevelt famously implemented a series of laws known as the “New Deal”, which included implementing one of the most popular programs today, Social Security, as well as many other measures to provide relief to unemployed Americans, among others. He ended the prohibition on alcohol, created a Public Works Administration (PWA) that not only built most of the public infrastructure in America today, including bridges, schools and dams but provided jobs for a quarter of a million people. He also created programs to create jobs and funding for American farmers and created strict regulations for business and several anti-trust laws. In short, Roosevelt was a socialist. He massively increased the size of the government, while putting strict controls over the market. In fact, as a member of a massively wealthy and prestigious family, Roosevelt was seen by many as a traitor to his class at the time.
The Trump administration did not inherit a collapsed economy, but he inherited the economy that inherited a collapsed economy, in a similar way that Roosevelt inherited Herbert Hoover’s economy that was broken by Warren G Harding and Calvin Coolidge’s highly prosperous, top heavy economy which categorised the roaring 20s.
Trump, however, went in the opposite direction. Obama’s approach to resurrecting the 2008 American sub-prime mortgage crisis economy was by no means perfect, particularly with regards to the massive payouts given to the big banks that were responsible for the Global Financial Crisis. However, Trump has just used the American stock market as a yardstick for a successful economy, passing massive tax breaks and deregulating the market. Wealth is being redistributed from America’s working poor to the very richest. Trump has built his “great” economy like a house of cards, with wages remaining stagnant, even though he was able to cite low unemployment figures. Coronavirus has been the new “Black Friday” in the United States and their economy is now on its knees with unemployment standing at 14.7% in April. It’s speculated that that figure could actually be as high as or even above 20% when agreements in fiscal stimulus packages expire. It has only been worse when it exceeded 25% during the Great Depression.
Now that America’s economy is in this state, Trump has continued touting NASDAQ prices rather than apologising or rationalising the utterly appalling figures that actually matter. Trump, should he be in office come the end of the year, could take a leaf out of Roosevelt’s book and look at drafting legislation that would be similar to the New Deal and his opponent in the presidential elections, Joe Biden, would be wise to propose something similar in his campaign messaging.
However, the progressive candidates in America that have been calling for a “Green New Deal”, which would be another massive set of legislative changes that would not only create jobs but also rebuild and modernise infrastructure to make it more sustainable and combat climate change, have all dropped out of the race. Biden is about as likely to direct some kind of similar program as Trump doing is.
The decade preceding Roosevelt’s election into office saw the rise to power of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, while Adolf Hitler took office as the Chancellor of Germany six weeks before Roosevelt took office and assumed the newly created office of Führer of Germany. Following the devastation of World War 1, there was a very strong anti-war sentiment in America as well as countless legislative barriers to any foreign policy outside of Roosevelt’s attempts to divest from operations in Latin America. The country had become an isolationist state that was almost completely opposed to intervention in Europe. and it was only the repeated atrocities committed against Jews in Germany, such as Kristallnacht, that American opinions and support for war operations swayed.
However, Roosevelt was aware that a war between America and Germany was inevitable and he began industrial production and various other processes in preparation for the war to come. The American army, which had undergone a peace-time draft in 1940, grew from less than 200,000 in 1939 to 1.4 million in mid 1941. At various global conferences, the United States were forging alliances and making post-war plans long before the Japanese airforce bombed Pearl Harbour. Roosevelt may have been blindsided on the day that lived in infamy, but nobody could ever accuse him for not being ready for America to enter the war.
And his decisions before and during the war were not easy to make, nor particularly popular at the time. Roosevelt had to ally himself with an enemy in Stalin, he took the decision to prioritise the war in Europe over the war on the Pacific front. Although his decisions as the Commander in Chief seem obvious today, they weren’t at the time.
And, of course, Roosevelt also oversaw perhaps the most secretive operation of all time, something which changed the entire course of history, the Manhattan Project. FDR also created the framework for the United Nations and his leadership during the Second World War very much shaped the world as we know it today. Trump is facing the same kind of existential threat with coronavirus, as well as military tensions between China and India, North and South Korea and in North Africa.
However, Trump was not prepared for coronavirus and even famously withdrew funding from the Centre For Disease Control (CDC) early in his term before launching his campaign against what he’s almost describing as a hoax these days, COVID-19. Trump is more occupied with finding excuses for why more than 125,000 people are dead than he is with actually avoiding those deaths.
Trump needs to make bold, calculated decisions, regardless of popular sentiment. He needs not to work against China, he needs to work with them. He needs to work with the entire world to find a solution to the “war” that we’re all fighting right now. And he needs to do it because it’s necessary, not because it will make him look good. Instead, he’s more interested in getting re-elected and saving face than he is on improving and saving American lives.
He’s almost gone in the opposite direction that FDR took. Rather than socialise the economy and protect people, he’s privatising the economy and looking after businesses. In his response to the coronavirus outbreak, Trump has been thoroughly unprepared and is throwing away lives. If Trump sticks by his policy decisions and continues in the same vain, he could destroy America, not make it great like FDR once did.