Ben Roback: Biden can continue to expand the state – now that Republicans are too distracted by the culture wars

7 Apr

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Joe Biden is free to grow the size of the state because no one is there to oppose him

Still within the first 100 days of his presidency, Joe Biden continues to call on the power of the federal government to dig America out of a Covid-shaped hole.

The size of the state is set to grow even further as Biden shapes the future of his presidency. He wants to use a major infrastructure package to fire up the economic recovery, and being able to pass it without any Republican support in the Senate means that the GOP has effectively abandoned the playing field in order to focus instead on culture wars.

Senior Republicans like Sen. Mitch McConnell appear much more focussed on telling big corporates to stay out of politics. Biden is free to grow the size of the state because there is no one left to oppose him.

An FDR-size presidency?

Recovering from a major “moment” like a pandemic or war presents governments with a rare chance to go big in policy terms. Voters are desperate for intervention and change.

History points to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as worthy examples. Both men inherited a huge political and economic crises, and both have tried to solve them with big money and big government. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was based on the principle that the power of the federal government was needed to get the country out of the depression.

Fast forward to 2021, Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” is a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package with investments directed towards roads, schools, broadband and clean energy. Like Roosevelt’s political philosophy and vision, it is based on the idea that when Americans fall down through no fault of their own, the state can help them get back on their feet.

That economic agenda received a significant boost when the Senate Parliamentarian ruled that Democrats could enact another resolution package this year. Put simply, this means that additional bills can be passed this year without any Republican support.

With the Senate split 50-50 and Vice President Kamala Harris making the tie-breaking vote, legislation would have been doomed to failure had it required the 60 votes typically needed. Republicans instead have the green light to oppose the president’s agenda without any consequence whatsoever.

That gifts Biden something of a free hand in a significant deployment of the power of the state. He campaigned citing infrastructure as something that all sides in Washington could agree on. A chance to put a bipartisan presidency into action.

For a country that is home to Wall Street on one coast and Silicon Valley on the other, far too many American roads, bridges and airports in between are crumbling. America gets a C- in its 2021 infrastructure report.

Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve Chair, wants an increase in corporation tax (21 per cent to 28 per cent) to help pick up the tab. The legislation will only pass if Biden can keep his party united, and once again the main opposition will come internally within the Democratic caucus in the Senate.

Republicans want a more focussed and cheaper plan that focuses on roads and bridges, but the consequence of the Senate Parliamentarian’s ruling means that the real opposition will come from Democrats in competitive states like Sen. Joe Manchin who want less big Government, not more.

Neither fish nor fowl, but it will taste awfully good

After the financial crisis and at the outset of the Obama presidency, the White House sought similarly to expand the role of the state. Republicans opposed the 2009 rescue package on the grounds that it was a significant government overreach that swelled the national debt to irresponsible levels.

The White House slowly limped along, enacting a slimmed down stimulus package amid fears of inflation and the political risk of growing the debt too much. Two years later, they were punished by heavy defeats in the midterm elections.

Biden, a first-hand witness to those decisions in 2008-09, wants to act quickly and boldly while his party has unified control of Congress, knowing full well that could change next year.

In an electoral system peppered with elections as frequently as in the United States, good politics often trumps good policy. Biden, with one eye on the first set of midterms in which the governing party is historically punished, understands that he and his party will be judged on their handling of the pandemic and the immediate steps to recovery. In that context, he is seeking to use the full force of the state to deliver for voters who care more about results than how they were achieved.

In 1933, Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority into law. Controversial at the time, Roosevelt said: “I’ll tell them it’s neither fish nor fowl, but whatever it is it will taste awfully good to the people of the Tennessee Valley.”

Biden campaigned with promises to control the pandemic and end decades of hyper-partisan gridlock in Washington. If he can deliver the former and turbocharge the economic recovery, will Americans really care about how he did it? Or that he abandoned the latter?

Once a dominant force in the Republican Party, the freedom caucus, and conservatives whose raison d’être was small government, are now a fading force. Instead, the GOP is abandoning domestic politics writ large in order to fight culture wars in the press and on Capitol Hill.

It is much more Donald Trump than Paul Ryan. In that respect, Biden’s calculation that he can grow the size of the state could be a shrewd one – if nothing because there are no Republicans left to oppose him.

Alexander Downer: A forward-thinking UK should shift the weight of its strategic policy towards the Indo-Pacific region

24 Nov

Alexander Downer is the Chairman of Policy Exchange, a former Australian High Commissioner to the UK and former Australian Foreign Minister.

Anyone who thinks Brexit represents the UK retreating pathetically from the modern world into “splendid isolation” – and that this is how our departure from the EU is viewed by our international allies – should read The New York Times a bit less, and listen more to the voices of world leaders and friends of this country who say differently.

Three recent examples stand out for me. The first is Stephen Harper, former Canadian Prime Minister, Chairman of the International Democrat Union – an alliance of Conservative and right-leaning parties – and Chair of Policy Exchange’s Indo-Pacific Commission. Announcing the launch of that commission over the summer, he argued that the “declinist” view of the UK “flies in the face of much available evidence”, noting that “Britain remains the world’s fifth largest economic power, with a proud history as a seafaring, trading nation and a commercial network that has outlasted the Empire”. He is spot on.

The second is Shinzo Abe, former Japanese Prime Minister, and the most significant Asian democratic politician of the post-war era. In the foreword to the new report from Policy Exchange’s Indo-Pacific Commission, published on Monday, he says: “As a leading global power, Britain has a major role to play in the Indo-Pacific,” observing that “on the security front, the British military, and the Royal Navy in particular, will be a welcome presence in the seas of the Indo-Pacific.”

Third comes Scott Morrison, the Australian Prime Minister, who was awarded the inaugural Policy Exchange Grotius Prize, named in honour of the founding father of international law, on Monday. On the commission’s proposal for Britain to shift the weight of its strategic policy toward the Indo-Pacific, he said: “I couldn’t agree more and have conveyed the same to Boris. I endorse the report’s ‘new vision for a reinvigorated community of free and independent nations with one overriding goal in mind: to reinforce a sustainable rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region (IPR) that is resilient but adaptable to the great power realities of the 21st century.’”

There you have it. We’ve grown used, in recent decades, to gloomy domestic talk of Britain’s post-imperial decline but – as I have found in my own experience, as Australia’s Foreign Minister and latterly as the Australian High Commissioner in London – international perspectives tend to tip the scales the other way. The UK’s friends are united in their belief that there is an important role for this country to play and a whole world beyond Europe that wishes to give a very warm welcome.

Nowhere is that more true than the Indo-Pacific – home to some of the fastest-growing economies of the 21st century. Britain, out of national self-interest more than anything else, should be working hard to build new trading relationships here, backed up with diplomatic and military heft. It is a very positive sign that the first major free trade deal signed by UK Government was with Japan, the third largest economy in the world.

As Liz Truss, the UK’s International Trade Secretary, recognised at the time, the deal was an important step towards joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would, she argued, “give UK business a gateway to the Asia-Pacific region and help to increase the resilience and diversity of our supply chains”. Policy Exchange’s Indo-Pacific Commission backs up that idea strongly, noting that it would link the UK to more than 13 per cent of global GDP and the world’s third-largest free trade area.

As the report also makes clear, there has been far too much focus in foreign policy circles over the last 30 years on the economic and military might of China, at the expense of the rest of the Indo-Pacific region. I firmly believe that China should be engaged with, rather than contained, and that its importance to the world’s economy has only been underlined in the past year as we have battled a pandemic that emerged in Wuhan and led to a global economic shutdown.

However, even in a year such as the one we have had, it is vital to note the huge economic transformation that has been going on in China in recent decades is part of a wider regional trend driven by other economic powerhouses, including Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, India the Association of South East Asian Nations, and Australia.

Of course, Britain cannot overplay its hand in the region as it seeks to play a greater role in what used to be called “east of Suez” in colonial times. Wisely, the emphasis in the Commission’s report – contributed to by key political and diplomatic thinkers in countries from New Zealand to Sri Lanka – is not on the UK acting as a “leader” in the Indo-Pacific, but rather as an “enabler” and facilitator for others in the region, which should take the lead.

This will apply in particular to one of the most attractive ideas in the report – a new Indo-Pacific Charter, which would in effect be a clear set of mutually shared aspirations for the future of future of Indo-Pacific relations that other major global players like the UK, and the US – which has a greater military and diplomatic presence there than any other foreign power – can support.

This charter could be as significant in the 21st century as the Atlantic Charter, signed by Churchill and Roosevelt in 1941, was in the 20th century. Suggested principles include no nation being “prevented by any other from free and full access to the high seas/global commons of the Indo-Pacific, for any peaceful purposes, including trade”. Without basic rules such as this, the region clearly will struggle to prosper.

There can be no forcing or co-opting of independent sovereign nations into submitting to such principles. But the idea, as Morrison observed in his brilliant speech accepting the Grotius Prize, is instead nations “freely submitting to such rules” around economic, security and global environmental issues “because it is in their broader national interest to do so”.

It will be in Britain’s national interest to engage more fully in the future in a prosperous Indo-Pacific. Likewise, as we have seen with Policy Exchange’s Indo-Pacific Commission report and the warm response to it, nations in the region see it as in their national interest to welcome the UK with open arms.

Robert Largan: We need a National Skills Strategy Skills policy. Not oversaturating our labour market with graduates.

9 Aug

Robert Largan is the MP for High Peak

When I was elected last year, I fully expected my priority to be getting more infrastructure built in the North. The Conservatives won a mandate to do just that, to fundamentally reshape our economy. Coronavirus has made this task more urgent than ever before.

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has been leading an innovative and nimble response from the Treasury. On top of ground-breaking schemes like the Job Retention Scheme to mitigate the economic impact of Coronavirus, we have seen the launch of an ambitious project to rebuild this country over the next decade.

Building up our infrastructure is about more than funding. It is about backing British industry and workers. As I pointed out in the chamber following the Chancellor’s statement, the Government has to get it right on the nuts and bolts of delivery.

The Government has proven it is willing to put in the investment we need to get building again and improve the planning system so we can build faster. However, we need the skills to get people to do the building.

According to last year’s Engineering Construction Industry Labour Market Outlook report, 81 per cent of employers said that applicants did not have the required skills or expertise. Over half of employers identified the ageing and retiring workforce as the main cause of the skills gap in their industry. There is a clear need to train young people and retrain older people to grow the workforce we need to get building again.

The skills gap across the board has been holding us back for decades. It has made our economy less productive than our competitors and denied opportunities to people across our towns and regions. Without bold action, this problem will get worse. The Industrial Strategy Council estimates that 20 per cent of the workforce will be under-skilled by 2030. Instead of oversaturating our labour market with graduates, we should be boosting apprenticeships, training and retraining, and vocational and technical education.

Under Conservative-led Governments since 2010, we have seen many promising policies to invest in skills. It was good to see the Chancellor build on this progress with extra funding for subsidised jobs for young people, apprenticeships, and training schemes in the Summer Economic Update. What has been lacking, so far, is a strategic approach towards investing in our workforce.

When the Chancellor fleshes out his plan to rebuild this autumn, he should put forward a National Skills Strategy. Investment in skills needs to be well-targeted, particularly towards the industries that will get infrastructure built. This will help tie together the Government’s approach towards promoting the skills we need to maximise opportunities for job creation.

Thanks to the introduction of the Industrial Strategy, we have seen a series of Sector Deals directing investment towards the industries of the future. The same principle can be applied to skills by discussing with specific industries how to turbo-charge support for their workforce so they can grow and recruit. Infrastructure is the best place to start.

After a decade of political upheaval, the country is ready for a decade of renewal. Rebuilding our infrastructure and investing in our workers will deliver that renewal. It is about time that we followed the example of FDR’s New Deal and prove exactly how much good government is capable of achieving.

Roderick Crawford: Brexit is the beginning of a journey to transform Britain

20 Jul

Roderick Crawford works on conflict resolution in countries such as Yemen, South Sudan and Iraq, and on Brexit-related matters. He is a former editor of Parliamentary Brief.

Brexit means Brexit, said Theresa May.    She was right – but only in part. Under Boris Johnson, Brexit means much more than ‘getting it done’; it offers the opportunity as well as the necessity for the economic and social transformation of the UK itself, and thus of government too.

So much of what makes the UK tick was caught up in and by the EU – whether that was booming, coasting along or withering on the vine – that to simply ‘do Brexit’ is not enough. To make a success of Brexit requires the transformation of the UK: there can be no more business as normal: that was the case even before Covid-19 came along.   For that, success is needed right across economic and social policy, not just trade policy.

Post-Brexit, the UK needs to address the problem in the housing market, because it’s a key contributor to economic prosperity, social stability and individual and family wellbeing.  The house-building industry and the housing market need radical reshaping; the industry needs new entrants, new building opportunities, innovative building that delivers significant productivity gains – and all on a scale not seen for generations.

For that, we need a government that will change the current closed market into an open one – and make land available to new entrants and for new projects.  It needs to create new incentives for landlords to move from short-term tenancy agreements to three or five year leases for existing and future tenants thus changing insecure accommodation into secure homes at the stroke of a pen.

It has been suggested that York should become the seat of the Lords or Parliament while the Palace of Westminster is refurbished and long term a government hub.  For this, York needs tens of thousands of new houses and flats, along with offices and conference centres, improved infrastructure, including its own airport and better regional road and train links.

York as a permanent government hub in the North makes good sense, but it could also pull financiers and more creative and service businesses north to add value to the regional economy – including manufacturing.  That would be a serious boost to the North – and a defining moment in the remaking of the UK, not just England.

New technologies, new processes, new designs, new businesses, partnerships – and new regulatory frameworks – are key to economic transformation.  This formed the basis of the UK’s first industrial revolution and the subsequent industry-sector revolutions since then.  Whatever keeps new entrants and innovations out of business sectors ought in principle to be removed, subject to legal and moral considerations.

Government tends to consult with the same old bodies about changes to market regulation, but most of those it consults are beneficiaries of the system as it exists or are so immersed in it that they can only see the possibility of reform of the present system, they cannot see a totally new one.

Where you need new entrants, consult with those outside the sector wanting to get in or expand, not those established firms trying to keep competition out and act accordingly.  Tinkering with the regulatory frameworks isn’t enough anymore –  extensive deregulation and re-regulation are both required, and in heavy doses for some sectors.  That was a key element of Franklin D.Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The United Kingdom needs a foreign policy that both supports UK interests and which the public supports – one that brings the UK together; the current review needs to put these aims to the fore.  We should seek to play a leading global leadership role, but with limited resources that means – at the least — focus, innovation and partnership.

As a general set of principles for the UK global aims, post-Brexit, we would do well to turn for inspiration and leadership to the Atlantic Charter, drawn up in August 1941 between Roosevelt and Winston Churchill on the warships Augusta and Prince of Wales, off Argentia, Newfoundland.  Its sets out eight common principles on which they sought to base their hopes for the post-war world; it remains highly relevant today, not least because due to wartime events, the war aims of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, its full hopes were not realised.

In summary, the two nations:

  • Seek no aggrandisement, territorial or other;
  • Have no desire to see territorial changes not in accord with the freely expressed will of the peoples concerned;
  • Respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they live and to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those forcibly deprived of them;
  • Endeavour to further the enjoyment of all states, great or small, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity;
  • To bring about the fullest co-operation between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labour standards, economic advancement and social security;
  • They hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want;
  • Such a peace should enable all men and women to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance;
  • They believe that all the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force.

Today we would want to add in a few more key principles — addressing climate change would of course be amongst them.

These principles could serve the UK well as a foundation for what it hopes for the world and its role in it; it could form the basis for future partnerships across the globe and guide its work through international bodies like the WTO or as it seeks to bring stability to the global order in a time marked by great change and challenges.

As we enter the next rounds of negotiations with the EU, it is as well to remember that any agreement we reach should support and not restrain the broader aims of national and state renewal for the UK and its freedom of action in foreign policy.  An equitable agreement at this stage would make a positive contribution to realising UK ambitions

James Roberts: Big state spender Roosevelt shouldn’t be Gove’s new role model

1 Jul

James Roberts is Political Director of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Our de facto prime minister, Michael Gove, has been a busy man. On Tuesday, he was in the Commons explaining Mark Sedwill’s sudden departure. At the weekend, he delivered a much-vaunted address to the prestigious Ditchley Foundation, joining a long line of luminaries: Mark Carney, David Milliband, John Major, Chris Patten, to name but a few.

Sparing the blushes of the distinguished Ditchley crowd, Gove didn’t mention Brexit much. But what he did deliver was a rare tour de force about the challenges facing Western governments, delivered with daring incisiveness by the Government’s ‘Hand of the King’. If the ever-authoritative media talking heads (and rapidly-departing civil service barons) want to know what ‘hard rain’ that nasty Dominic Cummings has in store for them, Gove’s lecture was a good place to start.

He didn’t pull his punches. For the ‘Forgotten Man’, faith in the system has been broken, “compounded by cultural condescension and insulation from accountability”, with the policy-making elites in political parties and the civil servants in the dock.

Reasonable demands, or taxpayers’ money to be well spent on accessible public services that actually work have been ignored. The top tiers of mandarin management are stuffed with like-minded PPE-ists, dripping in self-reinforcing groupthink, preaching every form of diversity going – except diversity of thought.

Gove described with brutal accuracy the tendency to coalesce around a cosy Westminster consensus, perpetuated by media commentary and pressure group plaudits, with almost non-existent evaluation of real world delivery. But the government eco-system is dying – its credibility eroded away by constant deforestation to feed an insatiable 24 hour media cycle, the whims of easy-choices-only politicians and the childish tantrums of the Twitterati. The spirit of intellectual challenge has been driven out of the forest, with generic generalists climbing high and genuine innovators buried in the undergrowth.

He’s bang on. As Matt Ridley identified back in 2013, policy-making has long been broken: sometimes little more than a string of special interest spending demands; elaborated on by so-called experts; written into submissions by pedantic pen-pushers; approved by malleable ministers; and made into law by preoccupied politicians.

‘Doing something’ is the name of the game. If social media demands it, laws can be changed. If the media suggests it, money can be found. The Forgotten Man – that is, the taxpayers who pay for all this – be damned. Their preferences are secondary or even, as Gove suggests, absent entirely. A quick reference to ‘taxpayers’ money’ seems often enough to settle the consciences of Tory ministers, as they implement evermore expensive government intervention, because a hashtag told them to.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance knows calling this out doesn’t win you many friends: you can count on one hand the number of policy-makers willing to go against the grain. At DEFRA, lest we forget, Michael Gove was quick to join the chorus of environmentalist big spenders, navigating Theresa May towards a non-negotiable £1 trillion net zero commitment (which by our reckoning no government department has any idea of how to achieve). But then, there’s no zealot like a convert.

But a form of zealotry is exactly what government reform needs. The so-called ‘Rolls Royce’ civil service has broken down by the roadside. On that front, Gove wasn’t short on bold solutions. As our landmark polling last year with ConservativeHome’s columnist, James Frayne, showed, more than six in 10 working class taxpayers agree with the suggestion that we should move more central government offices and jobs outside of London.

Almost three quarters of them believe that all civil service jobs should be open to applicants without a degree, perhaps hoping to break the hold of the hapless humanities graduates. A hard-nosed look at value for money is vital, too.

Gove namechecked numerous programmes, including his old chum David Cameron’s £1 billion National Citizenship Service, which could benefit from a proper quantitative analysis of success and failure. There should be nothing noteworthy about a politician taking aim at programmes, like the £920 million Troubled Families scheme or (Gove’s own) Pupil Premium, and asking if these really delivered for taxpayers. But in the punch-and-judy pantomime of the current political debate, this feels revolutionary.

The same can be said of some of his other policy proposals. In a speech so wide ranging it would usually have a Prime Minister worried, Gove called for  planning reform to fast track beautiful development, better use of data in the NHS, transparency on court and school results, reviews for failed anti-radicalisation programmes, interrogating defence procurement contracts and accountability on the impact of aid spending. Many of these things should be music to taxpayers’ ears.

But the implications of all this are far from clear. As the punters know, policy outcomes matter more than policy processes. Reviews often come to nothing. Promises aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. The devil’s in the detail. What does Gove actually want to achieve?

Does turning to more data in the NHS mean only allowing for government-made track and trace apps, which inevitably fail? Does it follow that reviewing a failed social programme results in it actually being abolished, and taxpayers getting their money back? Does accountability for aid spending mean cutting back the £15.2 billion cashpoint in the sky, or simply swapping money between dodgy dictators and wasteful NGOs?

he voters we polled wanted foreign aid reduced and reallocated to other priority areas such as the police, the NHS and schools. Very few people care how the sausage is made – they just want aid cut. But that’s an uncomfortable view in SW1, and incidentally not one that Michael Gove shares. It’s the same with the majority (68 per cent of C2DE voters) who backed abolishing the BBC licence fee. When he becomes inconvenient, or wants things that really upset the Westminster village applecart, the Forgotten Man is once again forgotten. Politicians just come up with better ways of ignoring him – the endless reviews and the broken promises.

In that sense, Gove’s speech could easily have been given by a much more fitting figure for the Ditchley Foundation: Tony Blair. Like Gove, he reached for the model of America’s big spending New Deal, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. New Labour offered innovation, clever solutions and new public service delivery models, with a pledge and a commission for every occasion. Gove and his Cameronite contemporaries looked on in awe, while most Conservative voters were horrified at the economic paternalism, metropolitan condescension and fiscal vandalism of the Blair years.

Many still believed that reams of government data and endless initiatives can never outgun the free and rational choices of millions of individuals. Their ears still rung with the mocking rebuke of Ronald Reagan: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Endless cash flow means that civil servants, not taxpayers, still made the rules. The TaxPayers’ Alliance itself was founded to take a stand.

Blair paid the price for ignoring his own voters, and taxpayers got sick of the Westminster consensus he created – ‘expert’ policy tsars, expensive PFI, and constant right-on crusades – arguably leading up to the EU referendim result in 2016. For a man so intimately involved in that campaign, Michael Gove may sadly be in danger of starting off down the same path. Replacing Oxford-educated experts with world-beating data whizz kids, or swapping a programme here with a review over there, won’t change the Blairite policy-making consensus – unless there is fundamental change of political intention at the top.

Britain’s forgotten taxpayers need Michael Gove’s intentions to be as bold as his analysis.

Profile: Franklin Delano Roosvelt, whose New Deal is the inspiration for Johnson’s Build, Build, Build

30 Jun

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a son of privilege who became the greatest leader of the Democratic Party. He led his country through two ordeals, the Great Depression and the Second World War, and won four presidential elections, twice as many as anyone else. His well-tempered air of command resounded through his fireside chats to the nation, and extended to the denial of his own infirmity after polio deprived him, at the age of thirty-nine, of the use of his legs.

FDR had the patrician self-confidence to enjoy breaking the rules, to feel no pang of conscience as he did so, and to condemn the rapacity of big business. A worker once said, ‘Mr Roosevelt is the only man we ever had in the White House who would under- stand that my boss is a son of a bitch.’ FDR was detested by some plutocrats as a class traitor, but persuaded most people that the federal government should pursue with the utmost energy any experiment which might relieve mass unemployment. He at length restored full employment by instituting the massive arms programme needed to prepare for hostilities in which 420,000 Americans were to lose their lives.

His father, James Roosevelt of Hyde Park, was a Hudson Valley squire who dedicated himself to a gentlemanly way of life, but also had extensive interests in railways and coal. James’s much younger second wife, born Sara Delano – she was twenty-six when they married, he fifty-two – gave birth with difficulty to a son, and was advised by her doctors to have no more children. Franklin was kept at home, schooled by tutors, until at the age of fourteen his parents delivered him in their private railway car to Groton, a high-minded American version of Eton.

The following year his fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt – their common ancestor had landed on Manhattan Island in 1649 – came to speak at Groton about being a police commis- sioner in New York City, and kept the boys in fits of laughter. Franklin was invited at the age of fifteen, along with a host of younger cousins, to visit his high-spirited Cousin Theodore dur- ing the summer holidays at Oyster Bay on Long Island. He described Theodore as the greatest man he ever knew, and prof- ited from observing and imitating his brilliant career. But the Hyde Park Roosevelts were Democrats, while the Oyster Bay Roosevelts were Republicans.

FDR went to Harvard, edited the student newspaper, the Har- vard Crimson, and was known to some as Feather Duster, for he was seen as a bit of a lightweight. He was a handsome young man, six foot two inches tall, with a dazzling smile. His recently widowed mother moved to Boston to keep an eye on him. She was appalled when he revealed his engagement to Eleanor Roosevelt, daughter of Theodore’s wastrel younger brother Elliott, but could not prevent the marriage, which took place in 1905, with President Roosevelt (as he had become) giving the bride away. Eleanor was no beauty, and worried Franklin might be too good-looking for her to hold on to. When they got engaged, she copied out Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lines for him: ‘Unless you can swear, “For life, for death!” / Oh, fear to call it loving!’

In the early years of the marriage she gave birth to six chil- dren, of whom five survived. FDR dabbled in the law, decided it was not for him and in 1910 was elected as the Democrat New York state senator for Dutchess County, which included Hyde Park. Two years later, he canvassed for Woodrow Wilson, who after winning the presidential election rewarded him with the post of assistant secretary of the navy.

Like Theodore Roosevelt, who had held the same job, FDR exploited its possibilities to the full. His administrative gifts were such that after America joined the war in 1917, President Wilson discouraged him from doing what Cousin Theodore would have done, and going off to fight. FDR feared his political career would be held back by his decision not to risk his own skin, and when Groton was erecting a tablet in the chapel bearing the names of those who had served in the war, made the most of the dangers he had run while on an official visit to France in 1918: ‘I believe my name should go in the first division of those who were “in the service”, especially as I saw service on the other side, was missed by torpedoes and shells . . .’

While he might have been in the trenches he carried on an affair with his wife’s spirited and charming social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore, encouraged the romance: ‘He deserved a good time. He was married to Eleanor.’ In 1918 Eleanor discovered a packet of Lucy’s love letters and offered Franklin a divorce. His mother, on whom he was dependent for funds, told him she would cut him off if he accepted the offer.

Divorce would have ended Roosevelt’s career; not until Ronald Reagan in 1981 did a divorced man enter the White House. FDR promised Eleanor he would stop seeing Lucy, but from now on they conducted a political marriage, their personal relations glacial. His mother, who lived until 1941, remained firmly in charge at Hyde Park, where in the 1920s a cottage called Val-Kill was built, which was the only place Eleanor could call her own. She stayed there with close women friends, flung herself into progressive causes and journalism, and became a public figure in her own right, the most notable first lady since Dolley Madison. Relations with her husband never mended. In 1949, five years after his death, she said of him: ‘I was one of those who served his purpose.’

In 1920 FDR was selected by the Democrats as their vice-presidential candidate. The party went down to a heavy defeat, but he was a rising star. The following August he was stricken, while at Campobello, the island just over the Canadian border where the Hyde Park Roosevelts spent summer vacations, with polio and found himself paralysed in both legs from the hip downwards. For a long time he hoped he would recover, and bathing in the waters at Warm Springs in Georgia made him feel better, so he developed the spa there for the use of himself and other sufferers.
There was no cure. The most he could do was learn to take a few steps with heavy steel braces supporting him instead of his legs and a son or bodyguard to hold his arm. With remarkable fortitude and self-discipline he set out to conceal from the public the gravity of his handicap. When he smiled, which was often, he looked like a man without a care in the world. Only two of the 35,000 photographs in the Roosevelt Presidential Library at Hyde Park show him in a wheelchair.

In 1924, he gave his ‘Happy Warrior’ speech at the Democratic convention in support of Al Smith’s presidential candidacy. The reference was to Wordsworth’s lines: ‘This is the happy Warrior, this is he / That every man should wish to be.’

The speech was a triumph and proved that he too was a warrior. He repeated this success four years later, when he again nominated Smith, who persuaded him to run for the governorship of New York, once held by Cousin Theodore. FDR was a formidable campaigner and in 1928 won New York by the slender margin of 25,000 votes, while Smith as the Democrats’ presidential candidate lost the state by 100,000 votes and went down to a heavy national defeat.

This was the springboard which could propel Roosevelt to the White House in four years’ time. He set out to show he was the most dynamic governor in America, promoting unemployment insurance, farm relief and a vast electrification scheme, reaching voters directly via the radio, winning a second term in 1930 by a record margin and using state funds to fight the Great Depres-sion by providing jobs and food.

Walter Lippmann, the famous liberal pundit, held out against the growing chorus of praise for the Governor of New York, writing in early 1932: ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt is no crusader. He is no tribune of the people. He is no enemy of entrenched privilege. He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be president.’ But FDR was already the front-runner for the 1932 nomination, a position he never relinquished. Doctors who watched him at work as governor testified that he was ‘able to take more punishment than many men ten years younger’, while Eleanor, on being asked if he was fit enough for the White House, replied: ‘If the infantile paralysis didn’t kill him, the presidency won’t.’

A month before the Democratic convention, Roosevelt spoke at Oglethorpe University in Georgia: ‘The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.’
Once the convention had chosen Roosevelt, he flew to Chicago to deliver an acceptance speech, breaking what he called ‘the absurd tradition that the candidate should remain in professed ignorance of what has happened for weeks until he is formally notified of that event weeks later’. In his peroration he declared:

‘I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people. Let us all here assembled constitute ourselves prophets of a new order of competence and of courage. This is more than a political campaign: it is a call to arms. Give me your help, not to win votes alone, but to win in this crusade to restore America to its own people.’

The New Deal was born. It had the advantages of being neither precise nor consistent. At times Roosevelt was accused of sounding like his opponent, President Hoover, a man wedded to more orthodox views. In the four months between Roosevelt’s election victory and his inauguration there was no cooperation between him and Hoover, who loathed and despised him. This helped the President Elect to show he was a completely different kind of person. The economy continued to deteriorate, with a severe banking crisis in February 1933, adding fear of loss of life savings to fear of unemployment.

Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, delivered on 4 March 1933, is famous for his declaration that ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’, a phrase which has grown smooth from overuse. It acquires its proper force when it is placed after the first two, somewhat platitudinous paragraphs, heard on radios across America:

“This is a day of national consecration, and I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the presidency I will address them with a candour and a deci- sion which the present situation of our nation impels.
This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.

So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Roosevelt’s success rested on his superlative ability to find the right words for every occasion. He carried Americans with him by using biblical language which would have been familiar three centuries before to the Pilgrim Fathers. ‘We are stricken by no plague of locusts,’ he went on to say, but have been failed by ‘the money-changers’, who ‘have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish’.

These exhortations would have been exposed as worthless had they not been followed by action. He put the Emergency Banking Bill through Congress in a day, and said in the first of what came to be known as his fireside chats – his radio addresses to the nation – that the legislation would only work if depositors stopped trying to withdraw their savings from the banks: ‘You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumours or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system, and it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem, my friends, your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.’

Roosevelt gave people hope. His clear, resonant, buoyant tones rang out across the nation, but he knew they must not ring out too often, or people would cease to pay attention. In the twelve years and one month of his presidency he delivered thirty fireside chats, each of which took ‘four or five days of long, over- time work’ to prepare. He had discovered how to bypass a predominantly hostile press and speak directly to the people.

His first hundred days saw a torrent of New Deal legislation, including the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Federal Emergency Relief Act, the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, the Truth-in-Securities Act, the Home Own- ers’ Loan Act, the Farm Credit Act, the Railroad Coordination Act, the Glass-Steagal Banking Act and the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, which sought to control floods, promote river traffic, generate cheap electricity and foster enterprise in a depressed area four-fifths the size of England. The results of these meas- ures were patchy, but the energy and ambition were undeniable. Unemployment did come down a bit, and FDR instilled in Americans the belief that the worst was over.

He also incurred the hatred of big business, which he assailed, in his speech accepting the nomination in 1936, for creating ‘a new despotism’, an ‘industrial dictatorship’ which destroyed small businesses and imposed ‘economic slavery’. In his speech at Madison Square Garden shortly before polling day, attacking the forces arrayed against him, a touch of hubris is apparent: ‘Never before in our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred . . . I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of self- ishness and lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master.’

Roosevelt won his greatest electoral victory in 1936, and pro-ceeded to make one of his greatest mistakes. The Supreme Court had rejected some of the New Deal measures as unconstitutional because they concentrated so much power in the hands of the president. He responded by trying to pack the court. This was a step too far, and he failed.

In foreign policy, Roosevelt was an impotent spectator of the rise of Hitler. Neither Congress nor public opinion would sanction a strong line: isolationist sentiment was too powerful. But in 1939, when war broke out in Europe, Roosevelt established communication with Winston Churchill, who had been recalled to the Admiralty. In May 1940, when Churchill became prime minister, he asked Roosevelt for the ships, aircraft, guns, ammunition and steel Britain needed to hold out against the German onslaught.

Roosevelt could not possibly do all that at once. When he informed Congress that American military aircraft production must increase from 12,000 a year to 50,000, many of his listeners declined to take him seriously. But as France crumpled under German attack in June 1940, FDR warned in a speech at the Uni- versity of Virginia against ‘the now obvious delusion’ that America could remain ‘a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force’, for then democracy itself would be in dan- ger. Roosevelt employed the liberal internationalist language of Woodrow Wilson, indeed improved upon it, for he sounded less naïve.

In June 1940 he sanctioned the secret research for what became the atomic bomb. In July, in a bold attempt to build bipar- tisan support for American entry into the war, he appointed two senior Republicans, Henry Stimson and Frank Knox, to the posts of secretary of war and secretary of the navy. In September he agreed to swap fifty elderly destroyers for British bases in New- foundland and the Caribbean. But 1940 was an election year, so like Wilson before him, at the end of October 1940 FDR felt obliged to repeat in the most categorical terms his promise to the ‘mothers and fathers’ of America: ‘Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.’

With such momentous events unfolding, few voters criticised Roosevelt for flouting the convention, set by Washington, that no president serve more than two terms, and they gave him a third by a convincing margin. He could now hasten to the aid of Hitler’s remaining opponents. At a press conference in December 1940 he compared supplying arms to Britain to lending your gar- den hose to a neighbour who needed to put out a fire. A fortnight later, as the Luftwaffe subjected London to a pulverising raid which was supposed to distract attention from his speech, he said:

‘The experience of the past two years has proven beyond doubt that no nation can appease the Nazis. No man can turn a tiger into a kitten by stroking it . . . We must be the great arsenal of democracy . . . There will be no bottlenecks in our determination to aid Great Britain.’

In June 1941 the war broadened with Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Roosevelt had already got the Lend-Lease Act through Congress, and sent his close aide Harry Hopkins, a raffish and gifted figure, to London to get to know Churchill and establish what supplies the British needed most. Hopkins went on to Mos- cow to do the same with Stalin. Hitler hoped to the end that his three main adversaries would fall out, as had Frederick the Great’s at a moment of peril for Prussia in the eighteenth century. FDR never allowed that to happen.

In August 1941, on board American and British warships at Pla- centia Bay in Newfoundland, he and Churchill held the first of their eleven wartime meetings. They sang stirring hymns – ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’, ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’, ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’ – and agreed what became known as the Atlantic Charter, a Wilsonian statement of eight rather misty post-war aims, behind which could be detected Roosevelt’s determination that this should be a war for democracy, not for the preservation of the British Empire.

But America was not yet in the war, and Hitler was careful to provide no provocation which would enable FDR to rout the still- powerful isolationist lobby in Washington. The Japanese were less circumspect. On 7 December 1941 they launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, where they destroyed or dam- aged eight battleships and killed 3,000 Americans. Roosevelt described this as ‘a date that will live in infamy’ and called for a declaration of war on Japan, which Congress immediately pro- vided. Germany and Italy proceeded, in accordance with the axis they had formed with Japan, to declare war on the United States.

Pearl Harbor united Americans in shock and anger. Roosevelt’s critics accused him of having known in advance about the attack, but could produce no evidence to support that view, nor has sub- sequent research revealed any. As a man who loved the navy, it is inconceivable that he would have left eight battleships tied up in port if he had known they were going to be attacked. But as soon as the attack had happened, he knew what he wanted to do. His priority was the defeat not of Japan, seen by most Americans as the aggressor, but of Hitler. FDR dramatised his role by flying to conferences with America’s allies, at which they settled on a com- mon strategy which concealed deep differences between them. He was the first president to travel by air while in power, and even his sternest critics in the American press could not help acknowl- edging that he possessed ‘a certain vast impudent courage’.
At the same time, FDR agreed to the internment of about 120,000 people in America of Japanese descent, most of them US citizens, in clear violation of their constitutional rights but in conformity with public opinion. Roosevelt felt no qualms. He was by no means a bleeding-heart liberal.

At Casablanca in January 1943 he proclaimed the doctrine of the ‘unconditional surrender’ of Germany, Italy and Japan, a term which, he reminded the assembled press, had been coined by Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War. This may have stiffened the resistance of the Axis powers, but it also reassured Stalin, who was not at Casablanca, that the western allies were not going to make a separate peace. In the summer of 1944, a year later than Stalin would have liked, the Americans, British and Canadians, along with smaller contingents from other allies, launched, under an American supreme commander, Gen- eral Dwight D. Eisenhower, the D-Day landings on the Channel coast of France.

Roosevelt, learning from the mistakes made by Woodrow Wilson, was already laying the foundations for the post-war world, which would include the United Nations and the Inter- national Monetary Fund, and he decided it was his duty as well as his wish to see the job through by standing for a fourth term. In September 1944 he opened his campaign with a speech at a Team-sters’ Union dinner in Washington, during which he responded to an attack on his dog:

“These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or on my wife, or on my sons. No, not con- tent with that, they now include my little dog Fala [laughter]. Well of course, I don’t resent attacks and my family don’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent attacks [laughter]. You know, Fala’s Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers, in Congress and out, had concocted a story that I’d left him behind on an Aleutian island and had sent a destroyer back to find him – at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three or eight or twenty million dollars – his Scotch soul was furious [laughter]. He has not been the same dog since.”

Brilliant performances like this, which was broadcast across the nation and can today be enjoyed on YouTube, distracted atten- tion from questions raised in the press about whether his health was up to another term. His doctor, Admiral Ross McIntire, who was an ear, nose and throat specialist, insisted he was fine. A naval cardiologist, Dr Howard Bruenn, who examined Roosevelt in March 1944, found he was suffering from advanced heart dis- ease and his condition was ‘god awful’. Had Bruenn been asked, he would have said it was impossible for the President to run again.

But Roosevelt ran again, and won a reasonably comfortable victory, assisted by American successes on the battlefield. In Feb- ruary 1945 he went to Yalta in the Crimea to discuss with Stalin and Churchill the shape of the post-war world. Churchill’s doc- tor, Sir Charles Wilson, wrote in his diary, ‘the president appears a very sick man … I give him only a few months to live’. But Roosevelt still obtained what he most wanted, which was Stalin’s assurance that when the fighting in Europe was over, the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan, which was expected to last for a long time, at a heavy cost in American casualties. At Yalta, Stalin got a free hand in eastern Europe, subject to unen- forceable promises about holding free and fair elections, but it is hard to see how Roosevelt, or any other American president, could have averted this, given the dominance on the ground of the Red Army.

Roosevelt returned to Washington, and in early April went down to Warm Springs. He was met there by Lucy Mercer, now Lucy Rutherfurd, for she had married a rich and elderly widower who was by now dead, and had rekindled her affair with Roosevelt, who was the love of her life. She was with him for most of the
time after Yalta, and was present on 12 April 1945 when, as his portrait was being painted, he remarked that he had a terrible headache, and died of a heart attack. Churchill described him in the House of Commons as ‘the greatest American friend we have ever known, and the greatest champion of freedom who has ever brought help and comfort from the New World to the Old’. Victory in Europe was by now imminent. On 30 April, Hitler committed suicide as the Russians stormed Berlin.

‘Many books will be written about Franklin Roosevelt, but no two will give the same picture . . . He was the most compli- cated human being I ever knew,’ Frances Perkins, his Secretary of Labour and the first woman to serve in the Cabinet, wrote in her memoir, The Roosevelt I Knew. ‘I felt as if I knew him . . . I felt as if he knew me – and I felt as if he liked me,’ a young soldier guard- ing the White House told Perkins on the night Roosevelt died. H. L. Mencken, known as the Sage of Baltimore, suggested by contrast that FDR ‘had every quality that morons esteem in their heroes’.

Roosevelt had a devious yet open-hearted charm which baffled inquiry. Many people were so flattered to be admitted to his circle on terms of seeming equality, they were happy to contribute to his success. He had a gift for making pragmatic choices seem adventurous and morally right. When challenged to explain his philosophy, after he had denied being a communist, a capital- ist, or a socialist, he replied: ‘Philosophy? I am a Christian and a Democrat – that’s all.’

This article is an extract from Gimson’s Presidents, Brief Lives from Washington to Trump, illustrated by Martin Rowson.