How Great Were Our Great Presidents? (6 of 6) Franklin Delano Roosevelt

I have written several articles on our Presidents and Vice-Presidents. A list of the links have been provided at the bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address additional Presidents and their places in history.

Academics and historians consider Franklin D Roosevelt as one of the greatest US presidents, ranking him alongside the likes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. In fact, the United States Presidency Center voted him the best American president overall in 2011. Roosevelt, commonly known as FDR, had the leadership skills to guide the US through the Great Depression of the 1930s and most of World War II. He’s also the only president to serve more than two consecutive terms in office – managing to secure a fourth term before he died in 1945.

But what was it about his leadership style that made him such an effective president?

FDR’s leadership skills

Stanford University historian David Kennedy has identified a number of characteristics that he feels made FDR a strong president.


Kennedy claims that Roosevelt had a curious mind and was always keen to learn more. The president was an excellent communicator and learned much through conversations and interactions with the outside world.

This thirst for knowledge and ability to absorb information made him a quick study, which helped him become an authority on issues with speed and confidence.

Presentation skills

Early in his career, FDR was an imposing figure – standing 6-foot 2-inches tall – however he is probably best known for his ‘fireside chats’.

Radio was a new-fangled technology during his time in office, but the president used it to good effect and he became one of the best orators of the 20th century.

Before his tenure, the White House mailroom was staffed by one mailperson, but within a week of his first radio appearance 70 people were needed to cope with almost 500,000 letters of appreciation.


FDR was known to be extremely confident in his own opinions and decisions.

It was this characteristic that led him to ignore his closest advisors on major issues, including US involvement in World War II.

His confidants opposed the early support of the British in the war, but FDR threw his weight behind the Allied forces in what many people consider a defining moment that swung the balance of power away from the Axis nations.

Overcoming adversity

Not only was Roosevelt’s time in office marked by some of the most eventful years in American history, he also had to overcome significant personal adversity.

The president contracted polio in 1921 – 12 years before he was elected as president – which left him paralysed from the waist down.

Despite this, FDR refused to be seen in public in a wheelchair, instead using a combination of canes and mechanical braces to stand upright and even walk short distances.

… And a little bit of luck?

While FDR is considered one of the greatest US presidents, some historians claim that he was also fortunate enough to receive some good luck during his time in office. Often in ranking systems, the best presidents are those that guide the country through troubled times, such as Washington during the first years of the unstable republic and Lincoln through the Civil War. Many of the peacekeeping presidents tend to blend into the background, and so the onset of World War II actually helped FDR stake his claim as one of the greats. Of course, without the right leadership skills during the conflict he would not have been able to handle these challenges so effectively!

Franklin Delano Roosevelt served as President from March 1933 to April 1945, the longest tenure in American history. He may have done more during those twelve years to change American society and politics than any of his predecessors in the White House, save Abraham Lincoln. Of course, some of this was the product of circumstances; the Great Depression and the rise of Germany and Japan were beyond FDR’s control. But his responses to the challenges he faced made him a defining figure in American history.

Americans elected Roosevelt President in 1932 because they believed he could combat the Depression more effectively than his Republican opponent, President Herbert Hoover. Roosevelt promised a “new deal” and he certainly delivered. By implementing a variety of innovative policies, FDR was able to pull the United States away from the brink of economic, social, and perhaps even political, disaster—and lay the foundation for future stability and prosperity.

Under FDR, the American federal government assumed new and powerful roles in the nation’s economy, in its corporate life, and in the health, welfare, and well-being of its citizens. The federal government in 1935 guaranteed unions the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a mechanism for putting a floor under wages and a ceiling on hours that continues to this day. It provided, in 1935, financial aid to the aged, infirm, and unemployed when they could no longer provide for themselves. Beginning in 1933, it helped rural and agricultural America with price supports and development programs when these sectors could barely survive. Finally, by embracing an activist fiscal policy after 1937, the government assumed responsibility for smoothing out the rough spots in the American economy.

Writ large, the New Deal sought to insure that the economic, social, and political benefits of American capitalism were distributed more equally among America’s large and diverse populace. The New Deal did this to a remarkable degree. But FDR’s New Deal failed to cure completely the Depression-induced ills of the American economy. By 1940, the percentage of Americans without jobs remained in double digits and the American people lacked the purchasing power to jump start the economy. Only American entry into World War II ended this torpor.

If FDR was elected in 1932 to fight the Depression, he was largely re-elected in 1940 because Americans believed he could guide the nation through a period of treacherous international relations. FDR correctly understood that Japan and Germany threatened the United States, which in turn endangered the cherished freedoms Americans enjoyed at home. With the onset of war in 1939, FDR ably guided America’s efforts to aid its allies without formally entering into hostilities. When Japan and Germany forced his hand in December 1941, Roosevelt rallied Americans in support of a massive war effort, both at home and abroad.

FDR hoped that the war would produce a more secure and peaceful postwar world, and he became a major proponent of a postwar United Nations, in which the United States would be a leading member. FDR, however, left to his successors the thorny problem of relations with the Soviet Union, which quickly replaced Germany and Japan as America’s chief global adversary. Nonetheless, a sea change had occurred in American foreign relations under FDR. By 1945, the United States had become a global power with global responsibilities—and its new leaders both understood this new reality and had the tools at their disposal to shape the world accordingly. FDR built a bond between himself and the public—doing much to shape the image of the President as the caretaker of the American people. Under FDR’s leadership, the President’s duties grew to encompass not only those of the chief executive—as implementer of policy—but also chief legislator—as drafter of policy. And in trying to design and craft legislation, FDR required a White House staff and set of advisers unlike any seen previously in Washington. The President now needed a full-time staff devoted to domestic and foreign policies, with expertise in these areas, and a passion for governance. With enactment of the Executive Reorganization bill in 1939, FDR changed the shape of the White House forever. In sum, President Roosevelt greatly increased the responsibilities of his office. Fortunately for his successors, he also enhanced the capacity of the presidency to meet these new responsibilities.

Many of today’s historians, feel that FDR’s progressive reforms were failures, that they only drove the country further into debt and had little positive effect on the economy. They also state, that the only thing that brought the economy out of the depression was World War II. I am also in this team. I have the benefit of seeing what future progressive policies have done to ruin our economy. Their platform is flawed. More government control does’t translate into a stronger economy. Fair capitalistic competition, with limited governmental interference is the best way to grow an economy. The problem is that the competition is not always fair. This is where we need some governmental regulation, to prevent the formation of monopolies. Even though, FDR’s reform policies failed to restore our economy, FDR’s handling of World War II ensures his place in history. So he deserves the following score.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sources:, “Franklin D. Roosevelt: Impact and Legacy,” By William E. Leuchtenburg;, “What Made Franklin D. Roosevelt a Great Leader,” By Informa Insights;

Presidential Series

2 thoughts on “How Great Were Our Great Presidents? (6 of 6) Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s