Leadership Lessons from FDR

I’ve been doing a lot of driving between home and the beach where we’re getting a little R&R—between columns and blog posts. And I’ve been listening to the audio version of Jean Edward Smith’s fine biography, FDR.

The book doesn’t break much new ground, but it’s a great summary of the remarkable achievements of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president and the creator, for better or worse, of the modern American presidency.

And what jumped out at me was how far above almost any president of the 20th century and beyond—except for maybe Ronald Reagan, who voted for him four times—FDR was in his ability to use the tools of his office to get things done.

Like Reagan, Roosevelt was supremely confident in where he wanted to take the country  and in his ability to connect with the American people. His political instincts were peerless. Writes Smith:

FDR needed no focus groups or opinion polls; he did not require staff direction or an array of political consultants.

He also was a first-rate schmoozer and ace manipulator of Congress—flattering, cajoling, using his leverage. These skills were not sui generis; they came from experience. As Smith writes:

After eight years as assistant secretary of the Navy,…Roosevelt had an unparalleled understanding of how to deal with Congress. He knew how to stroke the members, how to play to their vanity, and how to accommodate their needs.

The most remarkable thing, [one senator said], was Roosevelt’s ‘readiness to assume responsibility and his taking that responsibility with a smile.’

President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Photo: National Archives

Those efforts paid big dividends during President Roosevelt’s extraordinary first  100 days . (A huge landslide victory and a big majority in Congress helped, of course.) Here’s a quick summary of what he accomplished:

  • Declared a bank holiday
  • Amended the Volstead Act to allow the sale of beer and some wine.
  • Cut federal spending, including veterans’ benefits
  • Passed a farm bill to reduce agricultural surpluses
  • Established the Civilian Conservation Corps, which would put three million young men to work
  • Launched a public works bill
  • Instituted new regulations of securities markets
  • Created the Tennessee Valley Authority
  • Asked for legislation to protect homeowners from foreclosure
  • Took the US off the gold standard
  • Passed the National Industrial Recovery Act
  • Started deposit insurance for banks

Not all these programs worked, and a couple were declared unconstitutional. And they certainly didn’t end the Great Depression.

But can anyone seriously claim President Obama has shown that kind of skill with Congress or that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney did with the Massachusetts state legislature when he was governor?

The president let Congress write the stimulus bill and the Dodd-Frank Act, which is why both turned out to be big messes. FDR’s advisors and Cabinet officials closely oversaw the work Congress was doing and sent down legislation for Congress to pass.

And except for health care reform, which he doesn’t want to talk about, Gov. Romney accomplished little in Massachusetts. One big reason: he kept himself aloof from Democratic and even Republican state legislators. A schmoozer he isn’t.

That’s one reason neither can match Roosevelt’s long list of talents and achievements and why FDR’s presidency shows what we’ve been missing in the worst economy since the Depression–leadership. That’s a big reason this crisis will probably drag on much longer.

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