FDR and the Modern Presidency: Leadership and Legacy

By Mark J. Rozell; William D. Pederson | Go to book overview
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presidential branch. As a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP), peak government outlays under Roosevelt have never been matched.

Although the number of public sector employees has increased at a steady clip since 1945, federal employment under FDR was not matched until the early 1980s, again well after the most extensive growth in White House staff and influence.

Finally, the significance of the policy decisions that FDR confronted on a daily basis during the Great Depression and the war years--decisions in which the future of the free world hung in the balance--have arguably not been matched since. And although many of these critical decisions were made during a time of war, it is not the case that they unfolded in an atmosphere of political consensus; indeed, precisely because the stakes were so high, the policy and political bickering and disagreements that characterized wartime decision-making were in many respects more virulent than during peacetime.62

Of course, the proof of the conceptual pudding is in the empirical eating. Unfortunately, recent presidents have not seriously tried to implement FDR's administrative system, in part because it has often been mischaracterized by scholars. If we wish to help presidents "reinvent" the White House, then, it behooves us first to portray past administrative strategies, especially Roosevelt's, accurately, so that presidents can make realistic judgments as to their utility. From time to time during the last three decades, presidents have sought an administrative alternative to the presidential branch. It is reassuring to know that a feasible, time-tested candidate exists.

The most recent alarm, which linked the growth of the White House staff to an "imperial presidency," was sounded by Michael Lind in "The Out-of-Control Presidency", New Republic ( August 1995): 18-23. Lind's jeremiad is the latest in a series of such warnings. See, for example, George Reedy, The Twilight of the Presidency ( New York: World, 1970); Thomas Cronin, The State of the Presidency ( Boston: Little, Brown, 1975); Hugh Heclo, "The Changing Presidential Office", in Arnold J. Meltsner (ed.), Politics and the Oval Office ( San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1981); Thomas Cronin, "The Swelling of the Presidency: Can Anyone Stop the Tide?" in Peter Woll (ed.), American Government: Readings and Cases, 8th ed. ( Boston: Little, Brown, 1984); Stephen Hess, Organizing the Presidency, 2nd ed. ( Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1989); and John Hart, The Presidential Branch, 2nd ed. ( Chatham, N.J.: Chathan House, 1995).


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