Why FDR Still Matters

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States, was born 130 years ago on Monday. He was inaugurated in early 1933, while the Great Depression was still near his depth. He died in office 12 years later, with the Second World War still underway, early in his unprecedented (and now impossible) 4th consecutive term.

(Though there was no rule against it, it was a convention that no one would seek a third term as president, stemming from George Washington’s farewell address where he cautioned that no president should serve more than two terms. The unrest in Europe, then the United States’ effort in World War II served as FDR’s justification for his third and fourth terms. Congress later passed the 22nd amendment, formally limiting a president to two terms).


It goes without saying that, due to the events that transpired throughout his presidency, FDR is one of the most important presidents. It’s also my estimation that he is the greatest president of the post-reconstruction era (1865-present). While he was by no means perfect, and his administration had several notable failings, he is a historical figure I look up to, and find inspiration from several of his words and deeds.

While the great recession hasn’t reached the depths of the great depression, the economic struggles and instability make the lessons even more relevant today. Here are some of the things I think we can all learn from the 32nd President of the United States:

One of a Leader’s First Tasks is to Install Confidence
Taking office at the nadir of the Great Depression, one of FDR’s great tasks was to restore hope, and belief that things would get better. His fireside chats, and his famous words that there is “nothing to fear but fear itself” were critical steps, if not tangible, steps forward.

Don’t Be Afraid to Innovate, and Push for Change
The early years of FDR’s tenure were notable for several innovate social support and economic programs as part of the New Deal. This ranged from supporting large infrastructure works such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, to more targeted projects through the Works Progress Administration, to policy such as the Glass-Steagall Act. His administration demonstrated that government isn’t inherently a problem, and can be a force for good.

If You’re in a Privileged Position, Do Good
FDR was part of America’s upper class, and while that background and standing no doubt helped him achieve the positions of authority he did, he used his office to help the less fortunate, in many ways creating the modern welfare state in America.

It’s a lesson I think about every day in some small way. Whatever privilege I have, be it economic, social, intellectual, or otherwise, I should be doing something in some way to use the advantages I have to help others.

Great Depression
One of my favourite parts of the FDR memorial in Washington: a powerful statue of men waiting in line outside (what I remember to be) a soup kitchen.

130 years after his birth, and nearly 67 years after his death, America’s longest serving president is still an inspiration.


2 Responses

  1. On the other hand, always make plans in case something should happen. (A lesson for all of us). I recently read a book about Franklin Roosevelt’s last years when he had extremely high blood pressure and heart disease. This was not known to the general public but was evident to the members of the Democrats in the United States. Indeed, when the Democrats nominated Franklin Roosevelt to run for the presidency during the 1944 election, they knew that whoever was being selected as vice-president would eventually become president of the United States. Relatively little was known about Roosevelt’s running mate, Harry S. Truman, but no one was too enamored with Roosevelt’s current vice-president Henry Wallace. Thus Truman was nominated as vice-president.

    In the years since the 1944 election, the wisdom of the Democrats’ has been proven many times over–in the way Truman handled the rise of Stalin’s communism, the beginning of the United Nations, the firing of General Douglas MacArthur and so many other situations.

    • Great points. Lots to learn that I didn’t cover. That’s an interesting story around the ’44 ticket. My understanding is a lot of the establishment forced him to ditch Wallace, who they suspected of being soft on communism and socialism. It was, while not widely known as you noted, a very real concern of many close to him – well-founded as it turned out, that FDR wouldn’t survive his 4th term.

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