Roosevelt Re-Examined

Was the New Deal really the golden age of government?

If you grew up, as I did, in the 1960s and 1970s, your history books taught you one thing about the New Deal: It was the high-water mark of American government, an era when Franklin D. Roosevelt took the country by the reins and led it out of the benighted greed and excess of the 1920s into a new age when the national government put the economy back on track, jump-started progress, and guaranteed its citizens a safe and economically secure future.

It is this classic portrayal of the New Deal that Amity Shlaes, a visiting senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and syndicated columnist, takes on in her new history of the Great Depression out this month, The Forgotten Man (HarperCollins). The standard history, she writes, is that this was "the period in which Americans learned that government spending was important to recoveries" and that "the New Deal is the best model we have for what government must do for weak members of society, in both times of crisis and times of stability."

There's also a standard rebuttal to this history, Shlaes notes: that Roosevelt's predecessor, Herbert Hoover, was merely misunderstood, and Roosevelt himself was evil. Under this version, the New Deal programs Roosevelt created "accustomed Americans to the pernicious dole."

Shlaes sets out to chart a new course between these extremes. In her account, Roosevelt and Hoover aren't antitheses, but exist on a continuum of increasing government power and involvement in the national economy. Hoover, after all, rose to national prominence-and eventually, the presidency-on the strength of his work as Commerce secretary in coordinating the federal response to the massive Mississippi flood of 1927. (Imagine, by comparison, what an especially effective Federal Emergency Management Agency director would have gained from successfully responding to Hurricane Katrina.) One of Hoover's initial reactions to the stock market crash of 1929 was to boost spending on public works projects by $423 million in an effort to jump-start the economy. "Hoover and Roosevelt were alike in several regards," Shlaes writes. "Both preferred to control events and people. Both underestimated the strength of the American economy." And, she adds, both "overestimated the value of government planning."

Hoover's efforts and Roosevelt's New Deal, Shlaes argues, not only didn't end the Great Depression, they made it worse. The cure wouldn't come until World War II, and the massive drive undertaken by American industry to supply a global war effort.

So what is the New Deal's legacy? First, as Shlaes notes, it changed the definition of "liberal" from a concept centered on individual liberty to one involving support for the activist governmental approach underlying the New Deal and the social programs that have followed it. It also dramatically increased the power of the presidency and the federal government.

But there's another legacy, one only hinted at in Shlaes' book, which ends with the 1940 election. Many of the New Deal's programs and agencies-with some notable exceptions, such as Social Security and the Tennessee Valley Authority-went out of existence after America became involved in World War II. At that point, organizations such as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps were deemed unnecessary. This happened despite the fact that such programs were viewed in their time as critically important and had developed large constituencies.

That's something today's politicians might remember. In the post-New Deal era, it is difficult to impossible to end federal programs once they have been launched. Instead, programs and agencies that fall out of favor tend to be stripped of staff and resources until they can no longer function effectively, at which point they are cited as evidence of government's ineffectiveness.

As federal agencies continually struggle to meet all of their obligations, the question that the country's political leaders fail to answer effectively is what government should stop doing. That's especially true in an era when the appetite for government solutions to pressing problems-such as the threat of global terrorism-continues apace.

In that sense, maybe the New Deal was a golden age after all.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.