Roosevelt’s Second Term: Roosevelt and His Critics

“I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”—FDR 2nd Inaugural Address

FDR' First Term: Summary. As Franklin Roosevelt's first term as president drew to a close, he could look back with satisfaction at an extraordinary number of achievements. He accomplished more in his first one hundred days than most presidents complete an entire term. He signed the Emergency Banking Act to reduce financial panic. He established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, signed the Glass-Steagall Act and put into action a number of other programs including the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and the Public Works Administration, among other successful moves. The depression certainly was not over, but its impact on the nation had been blunted. Unemployment was almost cut in half, and the economy was growing again. Things were getting better, but they had a long way to go.

The Election of 1936

Although the focus of the opposition to Roosevelt’s programs came from Republicans, who were heavily outnumbered in Congress, there were plenty of conservative southern senators and congressmen who were unhappy with various aspects of the New Deal. Critics on both sides argued that Roosevelt, if not actually a Communist, was dragging the country in the direction of socialism, or even worse, that he was flirting with Communism. Although such charges could be written off as political attacks, FDR was nevertheless obliged to defend himself against them by declaring in his 1936 reelection campaign that Communism was not an issue between the two major parties, and that people should “put that red herring to rest.” 

Some of the opposition to Roosevelt’s reelection from the left came from within his own party. Some of his Democratic critics believed that Roosevelt’s reforms had not gone far enough, that he was just “fronting” for Wall Street, as Huey Long had charged. Several of Roosevelt’s critics organized a Union party, presenting a populist alternative to the mainstream Democrats. Also on the left was the Communist Party led by Earl Browder, whose convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1936 attracted large crowds. Browder claimed charges that Roosevelt’s programs were communistic were ridiculous and merely a cover-up for capitalism. (The appeal of Communism was blunted by the fact that communist sympathizers—“fellow travelers”—were disturbed by the belief that international Communism was controlled mostly from Moscow.)

Despite the critics on the right, left, and even in the center of the political spectrum, Roosevelt won a second term by a huge landslide. His opponent, Governor Alf Landon of Kansas, won only two states and eight electoral votes; FDR had 523. As mentioned above, Huey Long, who might have caused problems for Roosevelt in that election year, was assassinated in the state Capitol in Baton Rouge in 1935.

1936 Presidential Election Results
Party Candidate Popular Vote Electoral Vote
Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt 22,752,648 523
Republican Alf Landon 16,681,862 8
Union William Lemke 892,378 0
Socialist Norman Thomas 187,910 0
Communist Earl Browder 79,315 0
In the Congress elected in 1936, Democrats held 77 of 96 seats in the Senate and had a majority of 328 out of 435 in the House. During FDR’s first administration, American voting patterns had shifted dramatically. Blacks began to feel the hand of government lifting them up rather than pushing them down, and they shifted from voting about 80 percent Republican to 80 percent Democratic. As they gained greater access to government services, they came to see expanding government as economically advantageous, just as they had viewed Republican-backed programs as beneficial during the Reconstruction years and after. The difficulty for Roosevelt was that in the Democratic Party, conservative critics of his programs, many of them from the southern states, became more and more critical of the direction they saw government taking

Second Term Woes. American presidents who get elected by large majorities—or even modest ones—for a second term in office often get into trouble. That has happened to almost every president in the 20th century, excepting, in modern times, President Eisenhower, and even he had difficulties with the U-2 affair, Little Rock, and other issues that we will address later in the course. President Ronald Reagan had the Iran-Contra affair, and President Bill Clinton some personal behavior issues. Franklin Roosevelt was unique in that despite problems during his second term, he recovered and was elected two more times. By 1940 when he was reelected for an unprecedented third term, however, world conditions had changed dramatically, and therefore so had the issues facing the nation. Largely because of President Roosevelt's huge impact on the nation, the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution limiting the presidency to two terms was ratified in 1951. Franklin Roosevelt was therefore the last and only president to serve more than two terms.

Some who believed that Franklin Roosevelt was doing more harm than good seemed to bear a particular animus toward him because, as his old headmaster from the Groton School, Endicott Peabody, put it, Roosevelt had “betrayed his class.” Some critics feared that FDR was trying to create a dictatorship, and his immense popularity tended to underscore that fear. Others argued that increasing government controls over the economy would eventually threaten the liberties of the people. A cartoon in The New Yorker magazine early in the New Deal years showed a group of obviously prosperous, upper-class people emerging from a posh restaurant. Out for an evening of entertainment, one of them offered the suggestion, “Let’s all go down to the movies and hiss Roosevelt.” In those pre-television days, people got their visual news in movie theaters from newsreels, and Roosevelt quickly came to dominate them.

In my family there lived a genteel old lady whose father had been named for Henry Clay, the famous Whig (a party that feared too much power in the hands of the executive.) My grandmother rarely uttered a bad word, but she was quickly provoked by FDR’s patrician Hudson Valley voice. “Damned jackass!” she would mutter over and over whenever FDR was on the radio. As his landslide victory in 1936 showed, however, millions of Americans approved of what he was trying to do.

Roosevelt critics on the right formed an organization known as the Liberty League, of which former New York Governor Al Smith, who had once been a loyal Roosevelt supporter, became an outspoken leader. The Liberty League claimed that Roosevelt was leading the country toward Communism. In January 1936 Smith made a radio address to the American people which he called the “Betrayal of the Democratic Party." Claiming to have been a lifelong Democrat and vowing to remain one, he attacked the New Deal as antithetical to the American system of government. He claimed the American businessmen were being shackled by government. He concluded his speech with these words:

There can be only one Capital, Washington or Moscow! There can be only one atmosphere of government, the clear, pure, fresh air of free America, or the foul breath of Communistic Russia. There can be only one flag, the Stars and Stripes, or the Red Flag of the Godless Union of the Soviet. There can be only one National Anthem—the Star Spangled Banner or the Internationale.

President Roosevelt responded to his critics by arguing that fostering the economic well-being of the country would strengthen liberty and democracy.

Roosevelt and the “Nine Old Men”

The most serious challenge to FDR’s programs had come from the United States Supreme Court, which ruled that several of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were unconstitutional. The decisions angered the president and led him into his greatest political blunder, which followed the election of 1936.

justice hughesWhen Franklin Roosevelt resumed office for his second term in 1937, the Depression, as he acknowledged in his second inaugural address, had been alleviated but was still serious. Although Roosevelt was by any measure an extremely popular president, he still had critics on both the right and left. Feeling that he still had a mission of relief, recovery, and reform to accomplish, he saw his critics as carping nit-pickers who were out to thwart his attempts not only to restore the United States economy, but to cure many of its systemic ills. Feeling he was on the right track, he did not take well to criticism. Roosevelt was especially piqued over the Supreme Court’s decisions that many of his programs were unconstitutional, and he decided to take on the court directly.

During FDR’s first administration, the U.S. Supreme Court had undermined some core programs of FDR’s New Deal. In 1935 in the case of Schecter Poultry Corp. v. United States, known as the “sick chicken case,” the court ruled that portions of the National Industrial Recovery Act were unconstitutional and that by enacting it, Congress had given too much authority to the executive; the president had overstepped his powers under the commerce clause of the Constitution. Then in 1936 the court ruled portions of the Agricultural Adjustment Act unconstitutional, on the grounds that using the taxing powers of the government to control and support agricultural prices was a “matter beyond the powers delegated to the federal government.”By the end of its 1936 term, the Court had ruled New Deal laws unconstitutional in seven cases.

Shortly after his inauguration in 1937 Roosevelt gave a speech in which he excoriated the justices as “nine old men” who were out to keep him from helping the American people. With help from Attorney General Homer S. Cummings, FDR came up with a plan to expand the size of the court from nine to fifteen justices. He argued that the “nine old men” who sat on the bench at that time were overworked and incapable of handling the load and thus were making erroneous decisions.

There was nothing unprecedented about changing the number of justices on the Supreme Court, but there was no precedent for doing so in a manner that was so blatantly political. The chief justice responded to the president’s charge by stating that these nine old men were doing just fine, thank you, and needed no assistance from the president. FDR had submitted his court plan to Congress without any prior consultation; he was used to having Congress agree with his programs without question. He failed to grasp that Congress was already growing jealous of the president’s extraordinary powers and was not about to give him control of the court on a silver platter. In other words, his court-packing plan backfired; it was his biggest political mistake.

In the end, however, Franklin Roosevelt never tangled with the court again. Perhaps realizing that the president did have appointment powers he was bound to be able to employ—and which he did in fact use during his next two administrations—they never ruled against another New Deal program. Roosevelt had other problems in his second term, including what became known as the “Roosevelt recession” of 1937, brought about when even Roosevelt himself grew concerned over the growing government spending deficits. But by 1937 Germany was beginning to threaten the security of Europe, and the Japanese were attacking China. As the American economy continued slowly to recover, New Deal issues began to take a backseat to the new menace in the world, the growth of German and Italian fascism and Japanese militarism.

The New Deal Winds Down: The Legacy of FDR's Programs

In a 1938 radio address, President Roosevelt told the people:

Democracy has disappeared in several other great nations, not because the people of those nations disliked democracy, but because they had grown tired of unemployment and insecurity, of seeing their children hungry while they sat helpless in the face of government confusion and government weakness through lack of leadership . . . The people of America are in agreement in defending their liberties at any cost, and the first line of the defense lies in the protection of economic security.

In his State of the Union address of that year, he said:

[I]n a world of high tension and disorder, in a world where stable civilization is actually threatened, it becomes the responsibility of each nation which strives for peace at home and peace with and among others to be strong enough to assure the observance of those fundamentals of peaceful solution of conflicts which are the only ultimate basis for orderly existence.

It is clear that as the situation in much of the world was rapidly deteriorating, Franklin Roosevelt had one eye on the American economy and the other on the possible need for the United States to have to defend itself. The setbacks that Franklin Roosevelt underwent during his second term had tended to water fdr radio chatdown his plans for continuing the New Deal. Responding to the “Roosevelt recession” of 1937, FDR persuaded Congress to authorize spending of an additional $33 billion, mostly for the WPA and PWA. With that infusion of dollars the economy began to recover once again, but Roosevelt never applied the massive spending that would have been necessary to completely put the economy back on its feet. It was only the huge government spending brought about by World War II that finally brought the American economy back to the robust condition it had enjoyed in 1929. A few additional acts were passed during Roosevelt’s second term, but nothing to compare with the huge outpouring of legislation between 1933 and 1936. FDR remained popular with the American people, and he sued his radioaddresses—his “fireside chats”—to keep in touch with ordinary people, who came to depend on his radio messages.

In the midterm elections of 1938, the Democrats lost a large number of seats in both the House and Senate, and Roosevelt abandoned any further plans for new reform measures. Despite the fact that the New Deal did not fulfill the hopes of Roosevelt and the American people that the government could wipe out the effects of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s administration forever changed the relationship between the government and the people, and between the president and Congress.

The Tennessee Valley Authority remains a model of a successful government-sponsored massive utility program. The Social Security Act has provided a safety net for millions of Americans. Even as its future seems uncertain in the early part of the 21st century, the American people have come to expect that the government will assist them in their old age. Yet critics argue that Social Security has undermined America’s tradition of self-reliance and forces working people to support those who were unwilling or unwilling to provide for their own retirement. Other reforms in the area of labor, public works, and finance have also continued into recent decades. When the stock market experienced a huge drop in 1987 (in some respects a worse fall than in the crash of 1929), the damage to the economy and to the American psyche was negligible, mostly because of safeguards that had been put in place since the disaster of 1929.

Whether or not one agrees with the utility of the New Deal programs conceived by Franklin Roosevelt and the members of his administration, it is undeniable that Franklin Roosevelt was one of the most powerful presidents in American history, and that he probably had as much impact on the United States government as any president since George Washington.

By 1940, as has been said elsewhere, the world was a very different place, and President Roosevelt now entered the second challenge of his presidency. As storm clouds arose over Europe and Asia, Roosevelt had another series of battles to fight. First he had to confront the isolationists who believed in the principle of “America first,” and who rejected the notion that the U.S. ought to become involved in the world conflict. Second, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and when Germany declared war on the United States a few days later, Roosevelt faced the challenge of mobilizing the nation to fight the Axis powers.

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