He recalled the first time he had seen FDR, a moment he still remembered vividly—a campaign parade in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1936.
What a wave of affection and pride swept through that crowd as he passed by in an open car … a familiar smile on his lips, jaunty and confident, drawing from us reservoirs of confidence and enthusiasm some of us had forgotten we had during those hard years. Maybe that was FDR's greatest gift to us. He really did convince us that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself.
Reagan acknowledged that FDR had his critics, but on this occasion, he chose rather to emphasize how Roosevelt viewed all Americans as part of one social class only, a class called “We, the People.” FDR, he insisted, shared the people’s “zest for life and laughter” and praised his willingness to “make fundamental changes.” He concluded his oration with these words of encouragement:
Every generation of Americans has faced problems and every generation has overcome them. Like Franklin Roosevelt we know that for free men hope will always be a stronger force than fear, that we only fail when we allow ourselves to be boxed in by the limitations and errors of the past.
This is not a political gathering. It's a celebration of a great man who led our nation through historic times. It's a celebration shared here today by many who knew and loved him well. Friends, colleagues, and relatives—and for my part, a young sportscaster who first felt the awe and majesty of this office when that familiar caped figure drove down the avenue in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1936, the figure who proved to us all that “Happy Days” could and would come again.
Reagan delivered this speech at a time in his presidency when the economy was still floundering. One can see that he used the occasion to show how he was following the same leadership path as FDR: believing in freedom rather than fear; being willing to make fundamental changes when necessary; forging a new path that corrects the errors of the past. His policies were wholly different than FDR’s, but he made the connection with the former president based on leadership style. Writing in his diary later that evening, he commented, “The press is dying to paint me as now trying to undo the New Deal. I remind them I voted for FDR. four times. I’m trying to undo the ‘Great Society.’ It was LBJ’s war on poverty that led to our present mess.”
That diary entry indicates he saw a fundamental difference in the approaches of the New Deal and the Great Society. The Great Society had given the nation “massive increases in social spending,” yet no reduction in the number of citizens below the poverty line, fewer men in the work force, and an astounding increase in children born out of wedlock. Why was this? “I believe the answer lies in the firm difference between the New Deal and the Great Society,” he declared. “The New Deal gave cash to the poor, but the Great Society failed to target assistance to the truly needy and made government the instrument of vast transfer payments, erecting huge bureaucracies to manage hundreds of social programs. The Great Society failed in two crucial aspects: It fostered dependence on government subsidies, and it made the transfer of money from Washington bureaucrats to those in need seem like a mission impossible.” He continued, “I was a New Deal Democrat. And I still believe, today, that there is only one compassionate, sensible, and effective policy for Federal assistance: We must focus domestic spending on the poor and bypass the bureaucracies by giving assistance directly to those who need it.”