Despite following the political career path of his cousin Theodore Roosevelt and taking on some of his mannerisms, FDR decided to take on the persona of Andrew Jackson during his presidency. The economic destruction of the Great Depression had brought on the suggestion that the president should have dictatorial powers to fight the depression like a war. Both TR and Jackson were excellent pugnacious models for this situation, but for the Democrat FDR, the founder of the Democratic Party Jackson had more appeal.
Before he was even nominated for president in 1932, FDR evoked the spirit of Jackson. In April, recognizing that economic recovery depended on the cooperation of the major economic interests, FDR lauded Jackson’s declaration that “the spirit of equity requires that the great interests of agriculture commerce, and manufactures should be equally treated.” According to historian Frank Freidel, this philosophy was what FDR planned for the New Deal.
Then, just before the Democratic convention, FDR had a discussion with historian and journalist Claude G. Bowers about delivering his nomination speech. FDR had enjoyed Bowers’ book on Jackson and talked about Jackson as a model for presidential leadership. Roosevelt wanted a “fighting Jackson speech” and Bowers concluded that he “clearly had a preference for Jackson’s methods.”
Once in office, FDR tried to follow one Jacksonian method- a balanced budget. Despite the massive government spending and regulation the New Deal conducted, Freidel has insisted that deep down FDR had a “Jacksonian concern for the individual and also something of a states’ righter with suspicion of big government.” In 1936, with unemployment numbers improving, Roosevelt cut spending on New Deal programs to reign in the debt.
The concern for debt continued into World War II. FDR in 1942 already envisioned at the end of the war of reducing a projected $200 billion deficit by cutting $10 billion a year, with around $20 billion in receipts a year, thereby wiping out the deficit in twenty years. Even after the New Deal and the advent of war, FDR did not become a fully-fledged Keynesian (priming the pump with government spending), he was still a Jacksonian.
Also like a true Jacksonian, FDR believed that the powerful economic interests were arrayed against him. At a Jackson Day dinner speech in 1936, Roosevelt said:
“An overwhelming proportion of the material power of the Nation was arrayed against him (Jackson). The great media for the dissemination of information and molding of public opinion fought him. Haughty and sterile intellectualism opposed him. Musty reaction disapproved him. Hallow and outworn traditionalism shook a trembling finger at him. It seemed sometimes that all were against him- all but the people of the United States…History so often repeats itself.”
As the 1936 presidential campaign got under way, with conservatives hammering away at his New Deal, FDR increasingly saw himself as a modern day Andrew Jackson. To his vice-president John Nance Garner, he said, “It is absolutely true that his (Jackson’s) opponents represented the same social outlook and the same element of the population that ours do. The more I learn about Andy Jackson, the more I love him.”
Towards the end of the campaign, FDR was in full Jacksonian vigor, ready for a scrap with Republicans and the “economic royalists” to defend his New Deal programs. In one of his more venomous speeches, FDR claimed that “never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hatred for me- and I welcome their hatred.”
Whether it was a combative stance against the rich, an appreciation of a balanced budget, or the spirit of equity among the economic interests, FDR embraced the model of Andrew Jackson for his presidency. FDR might have acquired some of his toughness from TR or from his fight with polio, but Jackson frequently influenced his actions.