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When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed the Presidency on March 4, 1933, he gained leadership of a deeply isolationist country struggling to survive a depression and yearning for change. When Roosevelt died twelve years and one month later, he had lifted the United States to world power status, provided recovery from economic depression, incorporated rhetoric as a means to reach the masses, and expanded the powers of the Presidency. In short, FDR had created the Modern Presidency. Through his New Deal Programs, his ability to increase the United States’ worldwide influence, his Fireside Chats, and his expansion of Presidential powers, Roosevelt became the first Modern President and established the precedent all future presidents were to follow.
In order to understand Franklin Roosevelt as the first modern President, it is crucial to examine how the “modern” presidency differed from past presidencies. Renka asserts that the modern presidency’s power comes from four features: “the rise of the United States to world power status, rise of the central government within the American federal system, creation of a modern electronic communication networks enabling the rhetorical presidency to expand, and the creation of a modern administrative apparatus for the president and the White House” (The Modern Presidency from Roosevelt through George W. Bush). Each of these came about under the “entrepreneurial leadership” of Roosevelt (Greenstein 3).
Roosevelt paved the United States’ path from isolation to power. When World War II broke out in Europe, the country was largely isolationist. “Isolationist rhetoric reflected real public sentiment, as Roosevelt knew” (Renka, The Modern Presidency…). Roosevelt, however, seemed a step ahead of the nation. He stood firmly against Hitler and strove to align the United States with Western democracies and to strengthen the military (Greenstein 20). In 1938, Roosevelt’s foreign policy speeches began to reveal an obvious swing away from isolationism (Renka, Roosevelt’s Expansion of the Presidency). When Churchill reported in 1940 that the United Kingdom could no longer afford to pay for American weapons, Roosevelt used this opportunity to increase the United States’ influence in European affairs and lean his country slightly away from isolationism. Knowing Congress would oppose a loan to the United Kingdom, he created an entirely new program he called “lend-lease” (Greenstein 20).
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Roosevelt used his skills as a lawmaker to increase the power of the President and the central government. In the beginning of his first term, Congress passed an unprecedented amount of legislation during the “Hundred Days” between March 9 and June 6, 1933 (Greenstein 19). Roosevelt played a key role in the Hundred Days—“He approved policies, set strategies, met with legislators, explained his purposes, and courted the press” (Greenstein 19). Although a President had acted as “chief legislator” once before (Woodrow Wilson in 1913-1916), this role only became an expectation of Presidents after Roosevelt (Renka, The New Deal Political Coalition of Franklin D. Roosevelt). The Hundred Days were crucial in providing direct relief from depression, but a more appropriate model of the president as chief legislator comes from FDR’s creation of the New Deal political coalition (Renka, The New Deal…). FDR garnered support for his New Deal programs by granting policy payoffs for supportive factions instead of material rewards, as had been typical of the past (Renka, The New Deal…). For example, Renka points out that urban machines received work relief, organized labor received the right to organize and strike, and the West received public water projects (The New Deal…). This system redefined liberalism, which came to mean “using central government to expand rights” (Renka, The New Deal…). A wealth of economic and social welfare programs came into being, including Social Security, unemployment relief, WPA jobs, and minimum wage and hours law (Renka, The New Deal…). Such programs were intrinsically linked with the expanse of the Presidency and central government, and “the public took on greatly expanded expectations of what an American president could and should do in office” (Renka, The New Deal…). Undoubtedly, FDR’s New Deal programs led to the creation of a modern political coalition that greatly expanded the powers of the presidency. With the addition of new government programs, Roosevelt needed a means by which to communicate more effectively with the American people. His thirty Fireside Chats became the vehicle by which Roosevelt shared the most important elements of his agenda.
FDR became the first president to communicate personally with Americans across the nation at the same time. He utilized the radio to deliver his series of Fireside Chats in which he addressed citizens as “my friends.” His calm and encouraging rhetoric inspired Americans to renew their faith in banking and to trust Roosevelt’s administration. For the first time, Americans could listen to the President and feel personally connected to him. Rather than reading the president’s words in a newspaper, they could listen to his voice from the comfort of their living rooms. Roosevelt took care, however, to limit the frequency of his Fireside Chats so as not to overwhelm Americans. Roosevelt also captivated his audience with superior rhetoric skills in his formal addresses. Even though speechwriters composed most of his speeches, “Roosevelt’s oratory made poetry of even the least memorable prose” (Greenstein 16). Greenstein says plainly, “FDR sets a benchmark for his successors. His soaring rhetoric roused imaginations and stirred souls” (22). FDR was also the first president to give voice to the fact that Americans consider themselves different than other parts of the world: as a beacon of peace and democracy, the United States had “a rendezvous with destiny.” FDR established rhetoric as a vital part of the modern presidency, and his skills and public presence are traits successive presidents have hoped to emulate. In order to satisfy his goals, however, Roosevelt needed more than Americans’ support. He needed to expand his administrative authority.
Under Roosevelt, the demands of the president increased dramatically. With the creation of many new commissions and programs such as the TVA and the WPA, Roosevelt was unable to oversee every aspect of the expanding government on his own. The Brownlow Committee summarized this problem when it stated, “The President needs help” (Renka, Roosevelt’s Expansion…). As a solution, the 76th Congress passed the Reorganization Plan No. 1 which at last provided Roosevelt the help he needed through six administrative assistants. Roosevelt immediately took charge, issuing Executive Order 8248 on September 8, 1939 which created the first personal staff positions (Renka, Roosevelt’s Expansion…). Finally, the last element of reorganization occurred with the establishment of the Executive Office of the President, which put the Bureau of the Budget directly under presidential control (Renka, Roosevelt’s Expansion…).The creation of these basic administrative tools gave the president the ability to organize a vast agenda. Though Roosevelt’s tactic of pitting his aides against one another often led to “needless rivalries,” and is therefore unlikely to ever be modeled, FDR did succeed in laying “the groundwork for the organization-minded Harry Truman” (Greenstein 22-23). It is extremely difficult to imagine a current president fulfilling his duties without the assistance of these basic aide positions established under Roosevelt’s leadership.
Franklin Roosevelt redefined the American presidency. By leading America from an isolationist to a world power, strengthening the central government through the establishment of the New Deal Coalition, using encouraging rhetoric to establish a connection with Americans, and expanding the president’s administrative capabilities, Franklin Roosevelt set standards of leadership and conduct all current and future presidents would be wise to emulate.
Greenstein, Fred I. The Presidential Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
Renka, Russell. “The Modern Presidency from Roosevelt through George W. Bush.” 22 Jan. 2006. 6 Feb. 2015.
Renka, Russell. “The New Deal Political Coalition of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” 31 Jan. 2003. 7 Feb. 2015.
Renka, Russell. “Roosevelt’s Expansion of the Presidency.” 2 Feb. 2005. 8 Feb. 2015.