George W. Bush, Fdr, and History

By Black, Conrad | The American Spectator, April 2005 | Go to article overview

George W. Bush, Fdr, and History


Black, Conrad, The American Spectator


Franklin Roosevelt's biographer assesses our consequential president.

THE AMERICAN, AND TO AN extent the international media, many rubbing their eyes with disbelief, are starting to contemplate the possibility that George W. Bush may be a president of great historical significance. Disparaged by opponents as an accidental president, or even the beneficiary of a stolen election, and regarded even by many of his supporters as a man of insufficient intellect for his office, the ambitions he has revealed for his second term have prompted comparisons (in the Financial Times and elsewhere) with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, the President says, "fascinates" him.

These comparisons with FDR are overdone. Unlike Roosevelt, George W. Bush did not enter office with unemployment at 33 percent, a collapsed banking system and farm prices, nearly half the homes in the country threatened by foreclosure and eviction. Nor will he likely have to face any such prospect as a Nazi takeover of Europe. He is unlikely to have to lead the nation to victory in the greatest war in history, and he doesn't have to conduct his office from a wheelchair, while disguising from the public the extent of his infirmity.

Some Republican traditionalists and liberal alarmists have invoked Roosevelt by predicting that Bush will now try to undo what is left of the New Deal. There is no truth in this, unless he succumbs to second term dementia and tries to abolish the FDIC guarantee of bank deposits, and to restore Prohibition.

President Bush was obliged to focus on foreign crises in his first term, and is moving to domestic reform in his second. Roosevelt dealt with the economic emergency in his first year, structural reforms such as Social security in his second year, cranked up his workfare programs as required for the next three years, eliminated remaining unemployment with defense production and conscription in the two years before Pearl Harbor, and concluded the New Deal with the GIBiIl of Rights in 1944. Prior to World War II, there wasn't much American foreign policy.

Roosevelt did say in the 1940 election campaign that "we are going to build a country in which no one is left out," but there is no evidence that President Bush thought he was paraphrasing him when he took up the same theme. President Bush has neither the regal bearing, nor the oratorical powers, nor the protean qualities of FDR.

Yet, with a completely different style and timetable, George W. Bush could come closer to replicating FDR's importance as both a foreign and domestic policy president than all Roosevelt's other successors in that office.

ELECTORAL FACTS INVITE A reassessment by those who did not take the president seriously before. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are the first successive presidents of opposing parties to win two consecutive terms in American history, and the first consecutive two-term presidents since Madison and Monroe (1809-1825). The President is only the sixteenth of 42 holders of that office to win two terms, the fifteenth to win two consecutive terms, the thirteenth to win two consecutive contested terms, and, if he serves out this term in good health, he will be only the sixth president since the emergence of the modern party and electoral system (in the Jackson era) to do so. Of his five predecessors in this category, only U. S. Grant and Franklin D. Roosevelt led parties that controlled both houses of Congress in their second terms. Grant, though he rendered immense service to the country, was a largely ineffectual president. Hence the frequent current comparisons with FDR.

Incredulous media commentators endlessly repeat that George W. Bush's poll ratings are ten points below those of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton when they started their second terms. (They are also 20 percent below Roosevelt's when he began his third term.) This isn't really relevant. Bush and his advisers have mastered the technique of concentrating adequate political force at strategic legislative points. …

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