Last year, I have begun a new irregular series on my blog assessing the merits of UK prime ministers (illustrated through the lens of a single board game per prime minister). The rating system seemed robust enough to apply it to other countries/leaders (at least if they are more or less democratic). Thus, I’m branching out! Today, we’re doing our first US president. And we’re starting with none other than 20th century heavyweight Franklin D. Roosevelt. The accompanying game will be Cataclysm (Scott Muldoon/William Terdoslavich, GMT Games).
The Rating System
Some caveats ahead: The presidents will be rated by the knowledge of their time. If they or their contemporaries could not have known about the effects of something, I will not use my hindsight to mark it as a mistake of theirs. The assessment is focused on their conduct as president, but includes their life after holding the office (in which they will still be regarded in the public eye as (ex-)presidents).
Now, to the system itself: There are three policy field categories (foreign, domestic, and economic policy) and three more general ones (vision, pragmatism, integrity). A president can earn from one to five stars in each category (for a total sum of up to 30). In detail, the president is assessed as follows:
Foreign policy: Did the president increase US influence in the world and the security of Americans at home? Did the president wield US power responsibly and with positive results for the regions affected (the latter counting for a greater deal in times of US power being great)?
Domestic policy: Did the president increase the liberty of Americans to express themselves and to participate in the political process? Did the president promote domestic security and shape the framework for equality before the law and fair justice dealing with offenses?
Economic policy: Did the president facilitate the prosperity and economic security of Americans (including in the mid- and long-term)? Was the president’s economic policy based on mutual benefit of those involved or did it unduly burden one side?
Vision: Did the president have an idea of what the United States and the world (the latter counting for more in times of US influence being great) should look like beyond the immediate future? Did the president’s policies steer the United States (and, if applicable, the world) in this direction?
Pragmatism: Did the president succeed in seeing his policy through from inception to completion? How well did the president manage the support from Congress, society, the administration, the media (the latter counting for more in more recent years)?
Integrity: Did the president understand the office as a means to benefit himself, special interest groups, the entire country, or another community? Did the president respect the boundaries of the office?
Franklin D. Roosevelt – or FDR for short – (1882—1945) came from a wealthy New York family. He studied law and ventured into politics soon after graduating: At age 28, he was elected into the New York state senate. Like his famous (distant) cousin Theodore Roosevelt who’d been president until a few years before, Franklin was a progressive in favor of ambitious reforms. Unlike Theodore, he was a Democrat. When fellow Democrat Woodrow Wilson became president in 1913, he appointed FDR Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Many of Roosevelt’s convictions – like the importance of a strong navy to control sea lanes and his commitment to an interventionist foreign policy – were shaped in that time. In 1920, FDR was nominated as the Democratic presidential candidates James M. Cox’s running mate. They lost in a blowout, but Roosevelt established himself as a national figure. Roosevelt fell ill soon after and became paralyzed from the waist down (traditionally, his illness has been identified as polio, but newer research suggests it might have been Guillain-Barré syndrome). Consequently, he retired from electoral politics for a few years.
Roosevelt returned to politics and was elected governor of New York in 1928. His energetic tenure recommended him as a presidential candidate four years later, when the country was suffering from the Great Depression. Roosevelt won the election against Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover in a landslide. He would be re-elected an unprecedented and never repeated three times, winning over 80% of electoral votes in every election.
Roosevelt immediately began a flurry of reforms – starkly different from Hoover’s aloof and seemingly indifferent reaction to the Depression. This “New Deal” included unemployed relief and federal work programs, the foundation of federal social security, and the regulation of the financial sector. Thus, Roosevelt restored trust in the American economy and government.
In his second term, Roosevelt’s reforms were opposed by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Roosevelt threatened to introduce legislation which would have increased the size of the Supreme Court. As Judge Owen Roberts left the conservative camp in the Court, the New Deal now had a reliable judicial majority and the “court-packing” bill failed in Congress.
Outside of the United States, storms were brewing. Germany, Italy, and Japan challenged the existing world order. Roosevelt recognized early that American isolationism was ill-equipped to deal with these challenges. He pushed for American rearmament and, once war had broken out in Europe, supported the United Kingdom, France, China, and later also the Soviet Union in their struggle against the Axis aggressors – especially by giving them war matériel which they were to return or pay for after the war (“Lend-Lease”).
The United States only joined the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 (and the subsequent declarations of war by Germany and Italy). Roosevelt mobilized the country on an unprecedented scale: Federal spending from 1941 to 1945 exceeded that from the founding of the United States to 1940. The demand for war materiel stimulated the economy. Thus, America overcame the Great Depression building the planes, ships, and trucks with which the Axis was defeated.
Roosevelt’s main allies, the communist Soviet Union and Britain with its large colonial empire were not always supportive of the president’s ideas for a post-war order based on national self-determination and a rules-based international community. Yet they went along, defeated the Axis powers together, and founded international institutions like the United Nations. Roosevelt, however, would not live to see it: He died on April 12, 1945, less than a month before Germany’s defeat.
Foreign policy: Roosevelt’s impact on US foreign policy can barely be overstated. He overcame the traditional American isolationism and replaced it with the United Stated adopting a global role appropriate to its economic strength and ideological appeal as the beacon of democracy and capitalism.
Even before the United States entered the war, Roosevelt had succeeding in putting the country on a quasi-war footing, instituting selective service and supporting the beleaguered Allies first with the “cash & carry” option to purchase war matériel, then with the destroyers-for-bases deal, and finally with Lend-Lease).
During the war, he managed a coalition of unlikely allies and got them to agree with his outline for the rules-based post-war order in which we live until today.
Domestic policy: Roosevelt expanded American liberties with the early, symbolically valuable decision to end prohibition. More substantially, his appointments for judgeships as well as cabinet and administration posts reflected American diversity much better than before – Frances Perkins, his secretary of labor, the first woman to hold a cabinet post, may have been the most famous, but besides her, countless FDR appointees were women, from racial minorities, as well as Catholic and Jewish. Thus, Roosevelt ended the practical monopoly of WASP men on the levers of political power.
While the practical implementation of some New Deal policies excluded disadvantaged Americans (particularly Black southerners), the programs overall were the first large-scale social scheme in America not designed to exclude them and contributed to their equality.
However, Roosevelt’s controversial decision to incarcerate ethnic Japanese (most of which were American citizens) from the Pacific Coast states was an act of state violence based on racial prejudice and taints Roosevelt’s record for liberty and equality.
Economic policy: The strategy tips for the United States in the Cataclysm playbook state: “The United States can do everything. But in 1933, America is not doing anything.” That’s precisely the state in which Roosevelt found the United States. His deft management of competing interests quickly restored trust in the US government and economy, as when his early cuts in federal expenses increased support for the following spending on unemployment relief.
It is impossible to list all New Deal policies and their economic effects. Three examples might illustrate their breadth and depth:
- Roosevelt’s labor rights legislation allowed for the establishment of minimum wages, maximum working hours, and codified the right to collective bargaining. Combined with the expanded access to higher education from the G.I. Bill, these rights ushered in an unprecedented age of prosperity for the American working and middle classes from the 1940s on.
- The Glass-Steagall Act separated commercial and investment banking and thus limited the effect of stock market crashes on the “real economy”. Its repeal in the 1990s paved the way for the Great Recession beginning with the crash of 2007.
- The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) did not only provide unemployment relief and conduct infrastructure projects, it also had a massive positive environmental impact (for example, with the three billion trees that were planted by CCC workers).
Vision: Roosevelt built the modern presidency and shaped US and world politics for decades to come. He elevated and enlarged the office of the president, which, as a strong executive center, allowed the United States to become a global superpower. His vision of achieving liberty, equality, and opportunity with the help of an active government dominated in US politics until the 1970s, and his vision of the rules-based world order even longer (even though it has been under attack in recent years both domestically and internationally).
Pragmatism: As outlined above, Roosevelt undertook a massive transformation of American policy as well as of the role of US government. He succeeded in getting this transformation through Congress and the judiciary mostly by virtue of his immense electoral appeal: The public’s trust in Roosevelt was never more eloquently put forward than in his four landslide electoral victories. The “Roosevelt coalition” of urban working class, southerners, and racial/ethnic minorities proved almost unbeatable even after his death – from 1933 to 1969, Democrats held the presidential office for 28 of 36 years. Thanks to the Roosevelt coalition, they could always rely on Democratic strength in Congress. These endured even longer – the first time Republicans held both houses of Congress was after the “Republican Revolution” of 1994.
This combination of radical reform and enduring popular support in a democracy is remarkable. Cataclysm players need to keep their stability always at a high level if they want to emulate FDR!
Integrity: Roosevelt did not use his vast power for personal benefit, but for that of his country and the world. Still, his reach for power knew no bounds. He frequently tested the limits of his office, as in the “court-packing” attempt or in his battles with Congress. He never relinquished power voluntarily. Only death parted him from the presidency.
Overall: Roosevelt is not easy to rate. He is such a massively impactful president – by virtue of his long time in office, his re-shaping of the presidential role, his complete re-orientation of US foreign and economic policies – that in all the categories in which I have awarded him five stars he is likely still to stand out among future highly-rated contenders. The low points of his presidency – Japanese internment and his constant reach for more power – remind us that he was a flawed man, and that the flaws of a man with his power would shake a nation.
Summed up, he scores 25 out of 30 stars. Compared to the two British prime ministers scored already, that catapults him into a (shared) first spot – using the number of five-star ratings as tie-breakers, Roosevelt goes to the top of the ratings.
Full ratings so far:
Maybe I should tackle a less stellar subject for the next leader rating…
How would you rate FDR? Let me know in the comments!
For a recent, politically-focused Roosevelt biography, see Daniels, Roger: Franklin D. Roosevelt (2 volumes), University of Illinois Press, Champaign, IL 2016/2020.
William E. Leuchtenburg’s chapter on FDR in his treatment of the American presidents in the 20th century is almost a monography unto itself. See Leuchtenburg, William E.: The American President. From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2015, pp. 143-242.