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FDR's New Deal Summary & Analysis

Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered the White House in 1932 when the Great Depression was beating America like an angry King Kong, promising "a new deal for the American people." The package of legislative reforms that came to be known as the New Deal permanently and dramatically transformed the politics and economy of the United States.

Shortly after taking office, Roosevelt explained to the American people that his New Deal program would seek to deliver relief, recovery, and reform—the so-called "3 Rs." He allegedly wanted to include a fourth R, rodeo, but his advisors counseled against it.

In the field of relief, the New Deal proved to be highly successful. Millions of Americans, unable to find work in an economy that was still badly broken four years into the Great Depression, might have literally starved to death if not for the government checks they earned by working for new agencies like the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration. In retrospect, it's kind of an obvious solution: if the private sector isn't making jobs, maybe the government should.

In terms of reform, the New Deal legacy may have been unmatched in American history. For better or worse, Roosevelt's program drastically altered the relationship between the capitalist market, the people, and their government, creating for the first time in this country's history an activist state committed to providing individual citizens with a measure of security against the unpredictable turns of the market. Some believe this vast enlargement of the government's role in American society helped the country's long-run prospects. Others think we should allow the free market decide who starves. In any case, it remains a question of great political controversy to this day, but there can be no denying the magnitude of change wrought by FDR's presidency.

When it came to recovery, however, the New Deal's performance lagged. It was certainly successful in both short-term relief, and in implementing long-term structural reform. However, as Roosevelt's political enemies fought him, the New Deal failed to end the Great Depression. Throughout the decade of the 1930s, unemployment remained brutally high, while economic growth remained painfully slow. Recovery only came about, at last, in Roosevelt's third term, when the heavy demands of mobilization for World War II finally restored the country to full employment, in essence by doing exactly what the New Deal had been attempting: providing government-created jobs. Ironically, then, Adolf Hitler probably did more to end the Great Depression in America than Franklin Roosevelt did. Yikes.

Still, despite failing in its most important objective, the New Deal forever changed the country. Roosevelt built a dominant new political coalition, creating a Democratic majority that lasted for half a century. The structural stability and social security provided by the New Deal's reforms underlay a postwar economic boom that many historians and economists have described as the "golden age of American capitalism." And Roosevelt permanently changed the American people's expectations of their presidents and their government, by actually doing stuff. Fortunately for later presidents, this expectation has since been rescinded.

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