Ronald Reagan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt might be two of the most important presidents of the 20th Century, if not of the history of the Republic. Both came into their office at a time when the nation was in turmoil. The United States of FDR’s time was racked by the Great Depression while the United States of Mr. Reagan’s time had to contend with the twin evils of a stagnant, inflation-ridden economy and the ever-present danger of the Soviet Union. Both presented revolutionary plans for ending the economic crisis and stabilizing the country. FDR had his New Deal while Mr. Reagan championed a combination of tax cuts and government reorganization that commentators have dubbed “Reaganomics”. Both injected an unfailing optimism into American politics. FDR consoled his country through his Fireside Chats and willingness to do whatever was necessary to end the Depression while Mr. Reagan relentlessly pursued his agenda, promising that greater economic growth was just around the corner, as was the defeat of the Soviet Union. Lastly, both expanded their respective parties’ constituencies, altering the political landscape to the present day. FDR reached out to blacks, the poor and labor while Mr. Reagan championed the causes of the Christian conservatives and the rising neoconservative movement. In all but his economic policies, Mr. Reagan left a mark on the United States comparable to Roosevelt’s. He changed the tenor of the debate in Washington and succeeded in transforming the political landscape to the present day. Mr. Reagan is labeled as the founder of the modern conservative movement just like FDR was responsible for moving the Democrats into the 20th Century.
The Great Communicators
The impact of the message that Mr. Reagan expounded on during his presidency was similar in nature to the New Deal’s. FDR, famously declaring in his inauguration speech that the only thing the American had to fear was “fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” (Morgan 375). Roosevelt managed to redefine the problems facing the American people during his presidency. He spoke not of insurmountable problems, but of a fear that was perfectly manageable. Through his Fireside Chats he comforted Americans without jobs and without hope. Through New Deal programs like the National Recovery Act (NRA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) he took concrete action. Even if such action wasn’t always successful, it was an attempt to change the paradigm of American life. His administration, in an attempt to boost public confidence, organized rallies and marches on behalf of New Deal programs. Banners carried that said “We Do Our Part” made Americans feel like they had a stake in their future instead of being at the mercy of mysterious and impersonal economic forces. In short, FDR successfully managed to control American fear and desperation through the New Deal and also succeeded in channeling it for use in his administration’s relief programs (Freidel 127)/(Morgan 375).
Mr. Reagan also managed to control American fear and use it to the nation’s advantage. Coming out of a decade marked by double-digit inflation and economic anemia (“stagflation”), Americans feared that such a condition would be permanent. Plus, the ever-present Soviet threat was looming large: America looked somewhat impotent on the world stage after its failure to keep South Vietnam from going Communist; the United States military was in disrepair after years of spending on the Great Society programs and consequent cuts in defense; and the Soviet Union was attempting to expand into Central America and the Middle East (Bosch 201).
Bringing his unshakable Californian optimism to the table, Mr. Reagan offered the American people a plan of attack against these twin threats, thereby altering the political landscape of the country drastically. He proposed an economic plan—supply-side economics—that was supposed to reduce inflation and boost the economy. Mr. Reagan, declaring that an overly large government was wasting taxpayers’ money and stifling growth, promised to cut taxes and spending in non-defense-related areas. He even sold his tax-cut plan to Americans by appealing directly to the American people, much like Roosevelt did with his Fireside Chats. These actions, taken together and coupled with an economic boom during the latter part of his administration, convinced the American people that the government was doing something for average person. Mr. Reagan succeeded in redefining the economic debate and making the nation’s finances seem more manageable (Bosch 150,156, 183-191).
Mr. Reagan also helped Americans achieve the moral high ground in the Cold War. He saw Soviet totalitarianism for what it was and declared that the United States would attempt to destroy what he termed the “evil empire”. This statement, representing an unprecedented departure from traditional Cold-War doctrines, was also backed up by action. Mr. Reagan increased the defense budget, modernized the military—ordering it to develop new weapons systems to literally drive the Communist regime into bankruptcy in its attempts to compete—and supported the Strategic Defense Initiative (nicknamed “Star Wars”) aimed at creating a “shield” for the United States against possible Soviet nuclear attacks. These actions succeeded in reducing American fear of the Soviet Union and even held out hope of possibly eliminating that ever-present threat one day (Bosch 198-203)/(Regan 294).
Economics: Keynesian vs. Supply-side
However, despite the fact that both FDR and Mr. Reagan greatly impacted the way America viewed itself, Roosevelt’s actions impacted the actual workings of the government and economy more than Mr. Reagan’s did. Roosevelt’s New Deal heralded an unprecedented expansion of the government’s power. The NRA—even though it was later declared unconstitutional—showed that the government was now going to act as a supposedly “positive force” in individual citizens’ lives, a position that the government had heretofore been loath to take. The CCC and WPA swelled the ranks of federal civil servants—the government, for the first time in American history, was the largest employer in the America. Social Security also represented the first time that “safety net” programs were legislated by the federal government, which, because of Roosevelt, demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to interfere in intrastate and local affairs (Perrett 15)/(Freidel 73, 135).
Mr. Reagan, in contrast, never quite managed to alter the basic way the government operated. First, it must be understood that Mr. Reagan’s policy was never designed to be as radical as Roosevelt’s. Yes, he wanted to shrink the size of the federal government and deregulate the economy. But he never wanted to destroy the safety net programs envisioned by Roosevelt, only curb the power and “wasteful spending” he blamed on President Johnson’s Great Society Programs. Plus, fearful of angering the American public—with whom America’s welfare programs were popular—he refrained from cutting the Social Security budget. Instead, Mr. Reagan—through his “Reaganomics” program—pushed policies that deregulated industry, removing what he viewed as dangerous straight jackets constraining American growth. And, when cutting the excess fat from the American government, Mr. Reagan was largely constrained to cutting the Great Society “discretionary” programs: subsidies for mass transit, food stamps and child nutrition initiatives. In addition, because of the demands placed on the budget by the increased defense spending Mr. Reagan insisted on to bankrupt the Soviet Union, the federal budget actually grew under his watch. Mr. Reagan did, however, radically alter the tax system, cutting the capital gains tax and championing tax cuts for the wealthy as a means of stimulating economic growth while at the same time removing the inordinate layers of business regulation constraining economic growth. These policies reversed a trend held since the New Deal of taxing the wealthy more than the middle- and lower-classes and forcing business to constrain to federal regulations rather than having government accommodate business. Now, more of a balance was struck that helped to bring about a more-energized American business environment (Cannon 241-2).
The Changing Face of Politics
Both Mr. Reagan and FDR did, however, manage to alter their respective parties’ constituencies—a change that has lasted to the present day. Roosevelt’s focus on the unemployed and left-behind in America naturally garnered the Democrats support from one of the most disadvantaged groups in American history: African Americans. Abandoning the Grand Old Party of Abraham Lincoln, blacks latched onto the New Deal’s promise of food, work and stability during the Great Depression. The blue-collar worker also turned Democrat, supporting FDR’s policies—such as the NRA, the WPA and the CCC—designed to employ the legions of laid-off workers. FDR’s push to pass the Wagner Act (National Labor Relations Act) and the Fair Labor Standards Act paid hefty dividends for the Democratic Party. By recognizing the right of workers to organize and granting labor unions long-sought protections, he and Congressional Democrats endeared their party to organized labor to this day (Morgan 419-21, 495).
Mr. Reagan won for his party the so-called “Reagan Democrat”: the blue-collar, socially conservative white male who was frustrated at the Democrats’ perceived über-liberalism and fiscally profligate policies. He also presided over the beginning of the Southern realignment. Under his administration, Southern whites began voting Republican for the first time in history. Because of Mr. Reagan, these groups began to see the Republican Party more in line with their conservative social and fiscal philosophies. Mr. Reagan also moved the so-called “neoconservatives” of the Vietnam War to a place of prominence within the Party. These formerly liberal intellectuals, convinced that the Soviet Union represented an overwhelming threat to freedom and democracy throughout the world, flocked to Mr. Reagan’s tough rhetoric aimed at Moscow. (In fact, some have even called Mr. Reagan a “neocon”.) After the Cold War ended, their power didn’t diminish. Instead, it acted as the impetus behind the second Bush administration’s policies after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The “neocon” intelligentsia of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century—Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Mr. Bush himself—is responsible for America’s aggressive stance against Saddam Hussein's Iraq and al-Qaeda. Clearly, Mr. Reagan’s support of the “neocons” changed the history of the world (Atlas 12).
Icons of Two Ages
Both Mr. Reagan and FDR were leaders in the truest sense of the word. Each brought a vision to their parties and their country. Each was determined to change the world. And, most importantly, each succeeded. Both Roosevelt and Mr. Reagan managed to set an upbeat, optimistic tone for America. They revolutionized their political parties, bringing into play new and dynamic forces that would shape the direction of the United States to the present day. Their legacies live on in the hearts and minds of an entire people, a people that will not soon forget them or their contributions to society.
- Atlas, James. "What it takes to be a Neo-Neoconservative." The New York Times 19 Oct. 2003, late ed., sec. 4: 12.
- Bosch, Adriana. Reagan: An American Story. New York: TV Books, 1998.
- Cannon, Lou. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
- Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990.
- Morgan, Ted. FDR: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.
- Perrett, Geoffrey. Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph: The American People 1939-1945. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan Inc., 1973.
- Regan, Donald T. For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.
This node, an old term paper I dug up, is posted in memory of Mr. Reagan, who passed away yesterday, June 5, 2004 at the age of 93. May he rest in peace.