One Historical Assessment of the New Deal

One Historical Assessment of the New Deal
The New Deal in its six-year life compiled a stunning record of accomplishment. To be sure, not
all New Deal programs succeeded. Nor did the New Deal demonstrate the capacity to achieve full
economic recovery. As late as 1939, unemployment still hovered at around 9.5 million, or more than 17
percent of the labor force. Only in 1943, in the midst of a war-induced economic boom, did the vast pool of
the jobless finally evaporate.
Yet when all this is acknowledged, the New Deal still constitutes a watershed in American history.
The New Dealers may not have had all the right answers, but they asked many of the right questions. The
Roosevelt administration began by assuming a fundamental governmental responsibility to promote
economic prosperity and the well-being of all citizens. With such measures as social security, the Wagner
Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, the basic contours of the modern activist welfare state were drawn.
In the 1920s, as indeed through much of post-Civil War U.S. history, the business class had
exerted massive influence in Washington while other groups found themselves largely frozen out. Certainly
he favored treatment of business did not suddenly end in 1933, as the Reconstruction Finance
Corporation’s massive loans to large corporations make clear. However, as the New Deal evolve, it
increasingly acted as a broker for all organized interest groups—not just business, but also agriculture,
labor, and other sectors. Although this still left the unorganized—the poorest sharecroppers and tenants of
the rural South, for example—with little influence, government gradually became more responsive to
varied interests.
The New Deal stood for reform, but reform of a new kind. The progressive reformers, convinced
of the righteousness of their cause, had set out to eradicate evil from American life, whether the evil of
exploitative corporate power or the evils of gambling, drink, and prostitution. The New Dealers, by
contrast, in all their raucous diversity, felt few such impulses. Their aim was not to purify the nation by
establishing the rule of righteousness but to bring their expertise to bear on the practical problems of
business stagnation, unemployment, and the maldistribution of economic resources. The New Deal style
different markedly from that of earlier eras. As historian William E. Leutchtenburg has written: “If the
archetypal progressive was Jane Addams singing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ the representative New
Dealer was Harry Hopkins betting on the horses at the Laurel Race Track.”
The New Deal vastly increased the power and prestige of the presidency. Roosevelt so dominated
the politics of this era, and peppered Congress with so many messages and proposals, that Americans began
to expect their president to formulate “programs” and to shape the terms of public debate. This
development decisively altered the balance of power between the White House and Congress.
Any evaluation of the New Deal must come to grips with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Of course, not all
reform in the 1930s originated with FDR. Nor was he a saint or a superman. He could be maddeningly
devious, as in the Supreme Court fight, and his administrative skills left much to be desired. As agencies
proliferated and overlapped, spectacular turf battles erupted. But Roosevelt’s human strengths outweighed
his liabilities. Unlike some of his challengers on the Left and ideologues of the Right like Hoover, he
adopted an open, flexible, and experimental approach in grappling with the nation’s problems. He once
compared himself to a football quarterback, deciding which play to call next after seeing how the last one
worked out. In the unprecedented and desperate conditions of the early depression years, the nation
urgently needed such tolerance for innovation.
Above all, Roosevelt’s infectious optimism brought renewed confidence to a demoralized people.
This legacy of hope and activism is well summed up in an address that FDR delivered to an audience of
young people in 1939: “We Americans of today…,” observed the president, “are characters in the living
book of democracy. But we are also the author. It falls upon us now to say whether the chapters that are to
come will tell a story of retreat or a story of continued advance.”
Boyer et al., The Enduring Vision. Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath, 1990.