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Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR): Fireside Chats

How did one man transform the government so radically, and so quickly? One secret to Roosevelt's success was his "fireside chats," thirty speeches he gave over the radio (and later TV) during his presidency. In his fireside chats, FDR spoke directly to the American people as if they were close friends. The chats were crucial to building support for the New Deal and, later, to mobilizing the nation for World War II. Many Americans came to feel like they were partners in their government with a man whose warm and understanding voice came right into their living rooms. As one businessman later said, "My mother looks upon the President as someone so immediately concerned with her problems and difficulties that she would not be greatly surprised were he to come to her house some evening and stay to dinner."34

Another secret was his political acumen. Like many great politicians, FDR was both idealistic and pragmatic. Behind the scenes, he was constantly "working the room," often bringing on-the-fence Congressmen to the Oval Office to win them over. Even some of the most monumental programs of the New Deal were planned around political expediency. For example, the payment scheme that keeps Social Security running was chosen not for economic reasons, but because FDR knew it would help get the program through Congress and keep it on the books.35

Today, both historians and economists continue to argue about how successful the New Deal really was. While the economy improved significantly under the New Deal, it certainly didn't end the Great Depression; by 1941, there were still six million unemployed Americans.36 Conservatives argue that it created a dangerous, quasi-socialist regime in the country. Others, like MIT economist E. Cary Brown, argue that the New Deal didn't go far enough. According to Brown's influential analysis, FDR didn't spend enough money "priming the pump" to truly stimulate the economy out of the Depression.37

Whatever effects the New Deal did have, everyone agrees that the country was ultimately rescued from the Great Depression by something else. Throughout the 1930s, trouble was brewing in Europe. Adolf Hitler, who had assumed near-total control of Germany in 1934, became more and more aggressive in threatening his neighbors. Ultimately, it was World War II—the second major crisis of FDR's presidency—that would finally and completely lift the nation out of the Great Depression.

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