FDR and the Modern Presidency: Leadership and Legacy

By Mark J. Rozell; William D. Pederson | Go to book overview

6
"Plenty at Our Doorstep":
FDR on the Causes and Cures
of the Great Depression

James F. Pontuso

Franklin Roosevelt began his presidency by quieting the nation's alarm. "So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," he professed to an audience made anxious by the worst economic cataclysm since the rise of the industrial age. A less known, but perhaps more controversial, element of his first inaugural address was the statement that "I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis--broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe."1 The remark made even his wife, Eleanor, fearful "because when Franklin got to that part of his speech when he said it might become necessary for him to assume powers ordinarily granted to a President in war time, he received his biggest demonstration."2

To many, Roosevelt's statement and his later assertion of executive power during the New Deal marked a turning point in the duty and stature of the presidency. Prior to Roosevelt, it is argued by scholars such as James Sterling Young, the presidency was weak and subordinate; except in times of military crisis, presidents were hardly more than errand boys for the lawmaking branch. The Constitution granted few actual powers to the chief executive. When a president had to act quickly and decisively without a congressional mandate, he did so solely on the strength of his personality.3

-103-

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