Yet while Hoover conceded the election, he refused to concede the argument over how to battle the Depression, which continued to deepen in a fresh epidemic of bank failures. Suffering a pandemic now, Americans find themselves asked to indulge the currently outgoing president in his refusal to admit defeat and permit a transition. “What's the downside for humoring him,” one official asks, anonymously. In considering that question, we might count the cost of Hoover's inability to accept that the electorate wanted a change in crisis management. Americans lost jobs, money and lives while he resisted the consequences of the election — and the same thing could well happen today without an orderly transition.
Franklin Roosevelt campaigned on the New Deal in 1932. By the November canvass, he had promised a massive federal public works program; support for agricultural commodity prices; old-age pensions and unemployment insurance; hydroelectric projects for economic development; soil conservation programs, which also would relieve unemployment; federal organization of industry to adjust production and to ensure good wages and hours for factory workers; financial regulation, separating commercial from investment banking — in short, nearly everything we now associate with the New Deal. To be sure, he promised fiscal restraint, too, but never at the expense of the New Deal: “If starvation and dire need on the part of any of our citizens make necessary the appropriation of additional funds which would keep the budget out of balance, I will not hesitate to tell the American people the full truth and recommend to them the expenditure of this additional amount.” Even inflation of the currency, which Roosevelt knew better than to promise publicly lest he imperil the effect of the policy, he had promised “point blank” off the record.
For Roosevelt, such pledges amounted not merely to a program for recovery from the Depression but for building a better nation. He promised voters that his administration would “restore the close relationship with its people which is necessary to preserve our democratic form of government.”
Hoover disagreed. He said that no public works program could end the Depression and that if it tried, it “would break down the savings, the wages, the equality of opportunity among our people. … [and] crack the timbers of our Constitution.” As president, he vetoed a federal hydroelectric project, saying it too would “break down the enterprise and initiative of the American people” and was a “negation of the ideals upon which our civilization has been based.” He smelled on the New Deal the same “fumes of the witch’s cauldron which boiled over in Russia.”
For both candidates, the election entailed the highest stakes. Hoover thought Roosevelt's program would destroy American institutions. Roosevelt believed that only a New Deal could preserve and improve American democracy. The voters chose Roosevelt.
Emphasizing the burden the president-elect had now to shoulder, a friend told Roosevelt that if the New Deal succeeded he would be the greatest president ever; if it failed, the worst. Roosevelt retorted, “If I fail, I shall be the last.” He sincerely worried about the fragility of democracy. The previous summer, the march of an army of unemployed veterans on Washington persuaded Roosevelt that fascism had a chance in the United States. Adolf Hitler’s rise to the German chancellorship in January 1933 worried him still further; it was “a portent of evil” because, Roosevelt worried, it would encourage “latent Nazism” in the United States.
But despite winning a decisive victory over Hoover at the polls, Roosevelt could not move on to address these threats to American democracy. He had to fight Hoover again and again in the months remaining before inauguration — that year, for the last time, the president-elect had to wait until March 4 to take the oath of office; the 20th Amendment, bringing the inauguration forward to Jan. 20, would not apply until 1937.
Roosevelt still tried to meet the crisis by using the transition period to get the New Deal going. His aides caucused with the leaders of agricultural groups to write legislation for farm relief. He had engineers conduct a feasibility study for the transformation of the Tennessee River Valley by hydroelectric dams. He spoke to Democratic Party leaders to muster support, and he chose a Cabinet of committed New Dealers, both progressive Republicans and liberal Democrats. And as the bank panic grew worse — as fearful Americans took money out of the banks and, mistrustful even of the Federal Reserve, changed their paper dollars for gold — Roosevelt took advice from lawyers about presidential authority to close the banks, stop transactions in gold and permit the reopening only of those institutions certified as sound.
But Hoover tried to stop it all. He let the Congress know that if it passed Roosevelt’s farm relief bill, he would veto it. He hoped no relief measures would pass Congress: “I don’t want them to do anything,” he told one staffer. “Whatever they do will be bad legislation from our point of view.” When lawyers and Federal Reserve officers told him, as they also told Roosevelt, he should use an executive order to halt the growing financial crisis by closing the banks, Hoover refused — even once he learned definitively that Roosevelt planned to do just that immediately upon taking office, and that he could preempt the newcomer, robbing him of this initiative. “I felt,” Hoover said, “our effort should be to keep banks open, not closed.” Eyeing the headlines in February, he mused to an assistant, “Let’s see, we have a little more than three weeks still to run. I certainly hope the crash won’t come until after we go out."
Hoover could have cooperated in implementing, or at least not actively opposing, his successor's legislative agenda. Instead he went beyond blocking New Deal legislation, and pressured Roosevelt to renounce the New Deal. Hoover demanded repeatedly that Roosevelt pledge to remain on the gold standard, balance the budget and swear off the proposed public works program. “I realize,” Hoover told an ally, “that if these declarations be made by the President-elect … it means abandonment of ninety percent of the so-called new deal.”
Roosevelt declined to forswear the promises he had made to get elected. As he told one DNC official, his “most important task was to revive the confidence of the people in their government,” and he could not do that unless he kept his promises. Roosevelt did not yield to Hoover, nor did Hoover budge from his position of principled immobility — until the Constitution required it, at the end of his four-year term.
Immediately upon taking office, Roosevelt did close the banks and end the gold standard. Shortly afterward Congress passed farm and public works bills, as well as protections for labor and much else Roosevelt had pledged. The American system did not break down; rather, it thrived. Recovery began in the very month of Roosevelt's inauguration, and continued rapidly during the New Deal.
That recovery could have come sooner, with a smoother transition — but bland words like “recovery” and “transition” conceal the true cost of delay: people might have kept their jobs and savings and homes; they might have avoided starvation. Livelihoods and lives lost might have been saved, were it not for an outgoing president’s pride.
The transition now, as then, need not be an interregnum. The Presidential Transition Act of 1963, often and recently amended, provides for a smooth shift from one president and policy regime to another. But the constitution and laws still require that officials acknowledge the basic facts and legitimacy of elections. Without such admissions, in time of crisis each passing day increases the cost of flouting democracy.