Second Term Setbacks
"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1937
FDR's landslide re-election seemed to herald a new chapter for the New Deal. Elected with expanded Democratic majorities in Congress, the President planned an ambitious second term agenda. With the economy seemingly on a firm recovery track, Roosevelt turned his attention to deeper problems he saw in the nation. In his inaugural address, he spoke movingly about the country's least fortunate. "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished," he declared. He challenged Americans to end this poverty.
But FDR's plans soon went awry. Flushed with victory, the emboldened President overreached. A divisive battle with the Supreme Court and an unsuccessful effort to "purge" conservatives from the Democratic Party energized his opponents. Economic setbacks added to his woes. FDR's reform agenda stalled and events overseas began to take his administration in a very different direction.
The Supreme Court Fight
During FDR's first term the Supreme Court became a major threat to the New Deal. A conservative 5-4 Court majority disapproved of FDR's expansion of Federal power. In 1935-1936, these justices began striking down key New Deal laws, including the NRA and AAA, as unconstitutional. FDR feared future rulings would overturn other reforms, including Social Security.
In 1937, Roosevelt moved to remake the Court. He requested legislation empowering him to add up to six new justices for every current justice over age 70. Outraged critics charged he wanted to "pack" the Court. The Senate buried FDR's proposal in committee.
The outcome of the Court fight was FDR's greatest legislative defeat. But it became apparent that while he lost the battle, he won the war. During 1937, one conservative justice switched allegiances and began supporting New Deal legislation. This switch - and later Court retirements - let FDR shape a pro-New Deal majority without radical change. From 1937 until the 1990s the Court consistently supported a broad reading of Federal power in the economy.
The 1938 Party "Purge"
FDR's battle with the Supreme Court was one of two rare and costly political miscalculations he made during his second term. In the wake of his massive 1936 reelection victory, the President also declared war on conservative Democrats. In 1938, he organized primary challenges to a group of important Southern and Midwestern Congressional Democrats who opposed his Court plan and further expansion of the New Deal. FDR aimed to realign the Democratic Party around a thoroughly liberal political ideology.
Roosevelt's attempted "purge" of party conservatives was unsuccessful. All but one of his conservative targets easily defeated the reform candidate backed by the President. When the Republicans scored major victories in the Fall 1938 general election, a strong anti-New Deal alliance of Republicans and conservative Democrats emerged in Congress.