I began H.W. Brands’s biography of Roosevelt at the end of the summer, before the economy completely collapsed, and was struck then by the parallels between FDR and Obama. Both were young men when they set the Presidency as their goal; both were optimistic and realistic; both had a brilliant sense of timing; both were open to policy differences and were good listeners.
The similarities and differences are made clear in two excellent biographies of the twentieth-century President who navigated the deep waters of the Depression and saved capitalism by his innovation. Each of these books demonstrates that FDR, with his remarkable openness and optimism, reinvented the relationship between government and the private sector. He took action, and if that didn’t work politically or administratively, he did something else.
Both of these books are absorbing and read easily. Each has gathered a vast amount of history into manageable form. If there is a difference, Brands’s book is organized more by theme and Smith’s is more chronological. As his title implies, Brands views Roosevelt as a radical, in the sense of being willing to break from the past. There were few institutions then to mitigate the blows that rained down on individuals and society.
Here is Brands: “… the style of Roosevelt was intensely personal. Roosevelt didn’t ask Congress to cut the budget; he asked Congress to let him cut the budget. He spoke to the American people directly asking them to trust him. “
And Smith: “Roosevelt’s approach to foreign policy was similar to his conduct of domestic affairs: intuitive, idiosyncratic, and highly personalized. Just as he divided the New Deal’s relief effort between Ickes and Hopkins, he split diplomacy between Cordell Hull and Sumner Welles.”