American presidents in history. Specifically it will compare and contrast the lives and legacies of Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democratic) and Ronald Reagan (Republican). Two of the best-known and respected American presidents, Roosevelt and Reagan had very different ideas about how to run a nation. One a liberal, the other a conservative, the two left lasting legacies to their leadership.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the only president to have been elected to office four times. Like Reagan, he served in other political capacities before he took over the job of President. He was the governor of New York from 1929-1933, he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson from 1913-1920 (during World War I), and he served in the New York State Legislature from 1911-1913. He was educated as a lawyer and attended Groton, Harvard, and Columbia, all prestigious and well-known schools, and he did practice law for a short time.
Reagan served as Governor of California from 1967 to 1975. Roosevelt could be considered a career politician, since most all of his professional life was spent in politics, while Reagan got into politics after giving a speech supporting Conservation presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater. A journalist notes, “Following an effective fundraising speech in favor of the right-wing Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, Reagan was persuaded into running for governor of California.”
Thus, both men had political experience before they took office, although Roosevelt clearly had more experience than Reagan, and in a wider area of service, including military experience, which Reagan did not have.
Reagan did not have any foreign policy experience, while Roosevelt gained that with his position in Wilson’s Cabinet, and he had legislative experience, which Reagan did not have. Reagan attended a small, rural college, Eureka, and his family was not well to do, as Roosevelt’s was, so their backgrounds were different, just as their politics were different. It is interesting to note, however, that in his youth, Reagan looked up to and admired Roosevelt, and in his early life, he considered himself a Democrat. Altogether, Roosevelt was the more experienced of the two, and he had experience in several areas that were extremely relevant to the presidency.
Both men have been called reconstructive presidents, because they took office after a president of their opposing party left office, and because they came into office facing major societal and/or economic problems. Another writer notes, “Reconstructive presidents, such as Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan, are key actors in American political development because they have received the widest warrants of authority to repudiate the old regime and to create a new one.”
When Roosevelt entered the office in 1933, the nation was in the grips of the Great Depression. There was high unemployment, few jobs, the economy was horrible, and the people were extremely dissatisfied with the prior president, Herbert Hoover, who had not managed to help the economy after the Stock Market Crash of 1929, which led to the Great Depression.
When Reagan entered the office in 1981, the country was in a severe economic crisis, as well. In his Inaugural Address, Reagan said, “We suffer from the longest and one of the worst sustained inflations in our national history. It distorts our economic decisions, penalizes thrift, and crushes the struggling young and the fixed-income elderly alike. It threatens to shatter the lives of millions of our people.”
Like Roosevelt, Reagan followed on the heels of a president the country was dissatisfied with, Jimmy Carter, who had not been able to salvage the economy, or rescue the hostages from Iran. Both presidents followed presidents who the country felt had let them down, and both had to develop strong economic policies to get the economy back on track.
Reagan developed “Reganomics,” that helped put the country back on the road to prosperity. Essentially, the idea behind this plan was to shore up investment opportunities, so that more people would invest in items such as the stock market, and the resulting available funds would “trickle down” throughout the economy. He lowered taxes and slashed government spending, except in the area of defense, as well.
By 1984, the economy had strengthened, and Reagan was re-elected largely because of this.
He also developed a strong diplomatic policy that attempted to thwart communism across the world, and created strong American defense spending.
Roosevelt also developed strong economic policies to help bring the nation out of the Great Depression. He created the New Deal, a series of programs that were meant to stop the depression and take social responsibility for the people. They included creating Social Security and unemployment benefits for Americans, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) that oversees banks to ensure funds are not lost as they were during the Depression, and many government work programs meant to get Americans back to work and back to spending money to shore up the economy. The FDIC was especially important, because so many Americans lost their entire savings due to bank failures during the Depression, and there was no regulation that could prevent this. Another historian notes, “The annual number of bank failures had increased from 167 in 1920 to 2,294 in 1931, and to an incredible 4,004 in 1933.”
The New Deal is one of Roosevelt’s lasting legacies, and it ushered in an era of social change and government responsibility that was a great departure from previous administrations.
Reagan had to deal with disasters such as the “Challenger” disaster, when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up after take off, and he had to deal with an assassination attempt and the Granada invasion. Roosevelt, on the other hand, had to deal with the Great Depression, but he also had to deal with the Attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which threw the United States into World War II. Thus, Roosevelt was essentially a wartime president, while Reagan, although he did take a very defensive posture against communism, was a peacetime president. They both had to deal with national disasters, but Roosevelt led the country into war, and proved to be a good leader during war and peace negotiations.
It is difficult to say which president accomplished more, because they essentially accomplished very different things. Reagan helped the economy improve, he was a primary supporter of the Soviet Union’s return to democracy, but he also invaded Grenada, was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. Roosevelt put the country back to work, led it into war, and dealt with foreign diplomacy and internal strife. By sheer time in the White House, Roosevelt had to accomplish more, because he spent more time there, and had more issues to deal with during his presidency.
Roosevelt accomplished a great deal during his presidency, especially in the area of economics and the war. He quickly increased defense spending and production when America entered the war, and he was the one to OK the development of the atomic bomb, although he was not the president to order it used to end the war. He created sweeping social programs that changed the way the government supported the people, and he gained the people’s trust, as show by his numerous elections. Reagan accomplished quite a bit during his presidency, but Roosevelt, by sheer necessity, accomplished more, because he had serious situations to deal with.
Reagan is known for turning around the economy, and many historians believe this may be his greatest achievement. Young continues, “The successful enactment of his economic agenda should be considered a great achievement.”
However, Reagan also worked with Russian leader Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who took office in 1985. While Reagan was a staunch advocate for democracy over communism, he did meet with Gorbachev several times, and they discussed the opening of Soviet Russia to outside forces, and to removing the Berlin wall, which started coming down in 1989. Eventually, the Soviet Union’s communist leadership fell in 1991, and the country returned to a democratic government, and many credit Reagan as one of the major players in communism’s eventual defeat.
Roosevelt is known for creating the New Deal and getting America back on track after the Great Depression, and then leading the nation into war. Roosevelt had a much tougher job, because he had to deal with poverty, unemployment, business reform, war, disaster, and building up the nation’s defenses. He had to deal with many separate issues, while Reagan essentially had fewer issues to deal with and solve.
Probably the worst thing Reagan did in office related to the Iran-Contra Affair, where the U.S. sold arms to Iran. Writer Young continues, “In late 1986 news leaked that the administration had been selling arms to Iran in return for Iranian influence in securing the release of American hostages in Lebanon.”
The remaining funds were funneled to the Contra Rebels, a guerilla group in Nicaragua that was rebelling against the Communist government regime. It turns out the Contras may have been violating human rights, while Iran ended up being our enemy in the Middle…