Opposition & Responses to the New Deal: Roosevelt’s Strategy

Opposition & Responses to the New Deal: Roosevelt’s Strategy

Challenges to the New Deal: What was the opposition to the New Deal and how did Roosevelt deal with it?

In the midst of the Great Depression, a bleak era marked by economic downturn and widespread unemployment, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the New Deal. This series of programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations aimed to provide relief, recovery, and reform to a nation in crisis. As with any significant governmental initiative, the New Deal was not without its detractors. From big business leaders to grassroots activists, the opposition came from diverse quarters, each raising concerns about the implications of these sweeping reforms.

The New Deal’s significance in American history cannot be overstated. It transformed the role of the federal government in the lives of its citizens, setting precedents for future social welfare programs and establishing a social safety net. However, understanding its true impact requires not only examining the policies themselves but also diving deep into the challenges it faced. Opposition to the New Deal arose from various ideological, economic, political, and social fronts. Each opposition had its merits and critiques, shaping the course of the New Deal and forcing Roosevelt and his administration to adapt, defend, and sometimes modify their approach.

This essay aims to explore the diverse challenges the New Deal encountered, the nature of its opposition, and the strategies Roosevelt employed to navigate these challenges. By understanding the resistance, we gain a clearer picture of the New Deal’s legacy and the lessons it offers for present-day policy-making.

Economic Opposition

Arguably, the most pronounced opposition to the New Deal came from the economic sector. Business leaders, industrialists, and conservative economists voiced their concerns about what they perceived as unprecedented governmental intrusion into the private sector.

Many business magnates of the era viewed the New Deal with deep suspicion. They believed that the policies, particularly the regulatory measures, were detrimental to the growth and dynamism of American capitalism. The Wagner Act of 1935, which promoted labor rights and facilitated unionization, was especially contentious. Business leaders argued that by bolstering union powers, the Act would escalate labor costs, making American products less competitive and stifling economic growth. The Securities Exchange Act of 1934, which aimed to regulate the stock market and curb speculative practices, was another point of contention. Wall Street tycoons felt that it hampered the free market and deterred investments.

Conservative economists, on the other hand, presented a more theoretical critique. They contended that government intervention in the economy could lead to inefficiencies. Some went as far as to argue that the New Deal policies, particularly those that artificially raised wages and prices, might have prolonged the Great Depression. By setting minimum prices for goods and services and minimum wages for workers, they argued, the government made it difficult for the market to adjust and recover naturally.

An additional economic critique was the concern over fiscal irresponsibility. The spending associated with the New Deal, from public works projects to direct relief, increased the national debt. Fiscal conservatives argued that this debt would be a burden on future generations and might lead to long-term economic instability.

While these economic criticisms were potent, it’s essential to understand the context in which they arose. The Great Depression had shattered the faith many had in the laissez-faire economic system. Roosevelt and his advisors believed that government intervention was necessary to prevent future economic meltdowns and to provide immediate relief to millions of suffering Americans. The tension between these two economic philosophies — laissez-faire capitalism and government intervention — was at the heart of the economic opposition to the New Deal.

Political Opposition

The New Deal did not only face challenges from the business and economic sectors but also encountered significant political opposition. This resistance came from both the right and left political flanks, as well as from within the judicial branch of the government.

A prominent group opposing the New Deal on political grounds was the American Liberty League. Founded in 1934 by conservative Democrats and wealthy businessmen, the League staunchly opposed the New Deal’s expansion of federal government powers. They believed that Roosevelt’s policies undermined individual liberties and encroached upon states’ rights. By sponsoring radio programs, publishing pamphlets, and organizing public events, the American Liberty League became a vocal critic, accusing Roosevelt of leading the country towards socialism or even totalitarianism.

However, perhaps the most formidable political opposition came from the U.S. Supreme Court. Initially, the Court invalidated several key pieces of New Deal legislation. The most notable case was Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States in 1935, where the Court unanimously ruled that the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) was unconstitutional. The Court reasoned that NIRA granted the President an excessive amount of legislative power and interfered with states’ rights. This ruling was a significant blow to Roosevelt’s agenda, signaling the judiciary’s willingness to challenge his expansive view of federal authority.

Populist opposition also arose, with figures like Huey Long, the charismatic Senator from Louisiana. Long’s “Share Our Wealth” program proposed a radical redistribution of wealth, arguing that the New Deal did not go far enough in addressing income inequality. While Long’s plan garnered significant grassroots support, it also underscored the criticism from the left that Roosevelt’s policies were too conservative and failed to bring about substantial systemic change.

Facing this multifaceted political opposition, Roosevelt had to employ a mix of political savvy, compromise, and sometimes confrontation. His attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court in 1937, by increasing the number of justices and thus ensuring a more favorable bench, is a testament to the lengths Roosevelt was willing to go to safeguard his New Deal programs. While this particular plan failed, it highlighted the tensions between the executive and judiciary and the stakes involved in the political battles of the era.

Political opposition to the New Deal was not just a contest of policies but a profound debate over the direction of the nation, the role of the federal government, and the definition of American democracy in the 20th century.

Ideological and Social Challenges

Beyond the realms of economics and politics, the New Deal faced a myriad of ideological and social challenges. These critiques were rooted in deeply held beliefs about the nature of American society, individual rights, and the fundamental principles of governance.

On the ideological front, conservative thinkers asserted that the New Deal was antithetical to the ideals of American individualism. They believed that by promoting government intervention and welfare programs, Roosevelt was eroding the nation’s character of self-reliance and personal responsibility. These critics saw the New Deal as a departure from the country’s founding principles, with its increasing centralization of power and perceived infringement on individual liberties.

Conversely, the far-left felt the New Deal did not go far enough. Socialists and Communists, invigorated by the global movements of the time, argued that Roosevelt’s policies were mere palliatives, failing to address the inherent flaws of capitalism. They believed that only a complete overhaul of the economic system, moving towards a socialist or communist model, could ensure true equality and social justice. Their critiques underscored the New Deal’s balancing act, trying to provide relief without radically transforming American capitalism.

Racial and gender critiques also emerged, spotlighting the New Deal’s shortcomings in addressing systemic inequalities. While programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided jobs and support for millions, they often replicated the racial and gender biases prevalent in society. African Americans, for instance, faced discrimination in New Deal projects, receiving lower wages and encountering segregated facilities. Similarly, women were often relegated to lower-paying jobs, reflecting the era’s gender norms. These critiques highlight that, while the New Deal aimed to uplift the masses, it sometimes faltered in its inclusivity.

Roosevelt’s administration did, however, make some efforts to address these concerns. Notably, Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady, played a crucial role in advocating for the rights of marginalized groups, pushing for more inclusive policies and spotlighting issues of racial and gender injustice. The “Black Cabinet,” a group of African American advisors, also worked within the administration, striving to ensure that the concerns of the Black community were considered in policy-making.

The ideological and social challenges to the New Deal were not mere academic debates. They shaped the lived experiences of millions, influenced the direction of the programs, and continue to inform discussions on social justice, equity, and the role of government in today’s society.

Roosevelt’s Responses to Challenges

In the face of widespread and multifaceted opposition, President Franklin D. Roosevelt exhibited a remarkable ability to adapt, communicate, and maneuver, ensuring that the New Deal remained a central component of his administration’s response to the Great Depression.

One of Roosevelt’s most effective communication tools was his Fireside Chats. Leveraging the power of radio, he reached directly into American homes, explaining his policies in clear, relatable terms. These chats not only educated the public but also built trust. By addressing concerns head-on and framing the New Deal as a necessary response to unprecedented challenges, Roosevelt garnered public support and countered many of the criticisms from various quarters.

Recognizing the evolving nature of the nation’s problems and in response to critiques, Roosevelt introduced the Second New Deal around 1935. This phase saw more aggressive reforms, such as the Social Security Act, which aimed to provide a safety net for the elderly, the unemployed, and the disabled. The Wagner Act, promoting labor rights, was another cornerstone of this phase. By addressing some of the gaps and criticisms of the initial New Deal programs, Roosevelt showcased his willingness to adapt and refine his approach.

Facing staunch opposition from the Supreme Court, Roosevelt, in a bold move, proposed the Judiciary Reorganization Bill of 1937. Commonly known as the “court-packing plan,” this proposal aimed to add more justices to the Supreme Court. Though framed as a way to improve the Court’s efficiency, many saw it as a ploy to ensure a favorable bench for New Deal legislation. Despite the plan’s eventual failure, it signaled Roosevelt’s readiness to take decisive action in defense of his policies. In a twist of fate, the Supreme Court soon began upholding several New Deal measures, easing one of the major roadblocks Roosevelt faced.

Beyond these measures, Roosevelt also demonstrated political acumen through his alliances and compromises. He built coalitions with various groups, from urban labor unions to rural farmers, ensuring a broad base of support. Additionally, by occasionally compromising with key political figures and modifying certain policies, he navigated the complex landscape of 1930s American politics, ensuring the New Deal’s continuity.

Roosevelt’s responses to the challenges of the New Deal were a testament to his leadership qualities. Whether through direct communication, adaptability, or political maneuvering, he managed to keep the New Deal afloat, leaving an indelible mark on American policy and governance.


The New Deal, under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, marked a transformative period in American history. It reshaped the federal government’s role in the economy, introduced critical reforms, and provided a lifeline to millions during the depths of the Great Depression. Yet, like any ambitious endeavor, it was met with diverse challenges—from economic and political opposition to ideological and social critiques.

Understanding this opposition is crucial, not just to appreciate the nuances of the New Deal but to recognize the complexities of governing a diverse nation. Each challenge, whether rooted in economic theory, political strategy, or social justice, shed light on deeper issues concerning the direction of the nation and the nature of American democracy.

Roosevelt’s ability to navigate these challenges highlighted his adaptability, communication skills, and political savvy. Whether through direct engagement with the public via Fireside Chats, the introduction of the Second New Deal, or political compromises and maneuvers, Roosevelt showcased a masterclass in leadership.

As we reflect on the New Deal and its legacy, it serves as a reminder of the inherent tensions in democratic governance. Balancing immediate needs with long-term implications, managing diverse interests, and steering a nation through crisis require not only strong policies but also visionary leadership. The story of the New Deal and its challenges offers lessons that remain relevant today, as policymakers grapple with contemporary issues in an ever-evolving landscape.

Class Outline and Notes: What was the opposition to the New Deal and how did Roosevelt deal with it?

While the New Deal helped millions of American’s, it was not without challenge. In this lesson we will discuss those challenges and FDR’s reactions.

I. Challenges to the New Deal

A. What were some of the reasons the New Deal was challenged?

1. Created a very powerful president that led Congress, this was a violation of checks and balances.

2. It was a radical departure from Laissez Faire ideals. Created “big government” – bureaucracy.

3. Some acts appeared interfering and at worst unconstitutional.

4. Heavy debt burden – the United States was engaged in deficit spending and this was unhealthy for the economy in the long run.

B. How did the Supreme Court respond to New Deal legislation?

1. Schecter Poultry Corp. Vs The United States (The Sick Chicken Case)

a) Schecter Poultry was alleged to have sold unfit chicken to a butcher. Schecter and the butcher are both based in Brooklyn New York. Schecter did no out of state business. Schecter Poultry Co. was charged by the federal government which argued that under the National Industrial Recovery Act Schecter Poultry can be regulated by the federal government which under the NRA set up codes in cooperation with various industries that:

(1) set prices ranges.

(2) set up minimum wages and maximum hours.

(3) abolished child labor

(4) recognized the rights of unions to organize

b) Schecter Poultry argued that the NIRA was unconstitutional because the federal government had no right to regulate intrastate trade.

c) The Supreme Court citing Gibbons v Ogden as the precedent reversed the lower courts decision in Schecter
and struck down the NIRA as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court thus said reaffirmed the fact that the federal government may not regulate intrastate trade only interstate trade.

d) NIRA replaced with National Labor Relations Act, NLRA, which created the NLRB, set fair work standards and with the Fair Labor Standards Act, passing the first minimum wage per hour, 20 cents, maximum work week, 44 then 40 hours, and banned 16 year olds and younger from factory jobs.

2. United States v Butler

a) Suit is brought in attempt to have the Agricultural Adjustment Act declared unconstitutional. The federal government, which had done little in the 1920s to help farmers, initiated remedial programs with the passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 which provided
payments to farmers in return for agreements to curtail their acreage or their production of wheat, cotton, rice, tobacco, corn, hogs, and dairy products. Payments were financed from taxes imposed on processors and these taxes were then sent directly to farmers as reimbursement NOT to grow food. Butler, a processor, refused to pay the tax and the Federal government brought suit against him. In his defense Butler claimed that tax may not be used to transfer wealth directly from one person to another.

b) The Supreme Court agreed with Butler and struck down the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. The next year Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1934 which taxed processors and then placed the money into the governments general fund. Then farmers were paid out of the general fund not to grow food. The laws had the same effect, its just that the later version was done legally.

D. How did Roosevelt respond to the Courts attack on the New Deal?

1. Introduced Constitutional Amendment to enlarge the size of the court. This is referred to as his “Court packing” scheme.

2. Congress did not pass the amendment. It is regarded as a dark spot on FDR’s record because it represented an attempt to subvert the process and alter the system of checks and balances.