From Mike Tomasky’s excellent article on trying to mitigate progressive disgruntlement by understanding the messiness of real history, a slice of the Secret History of the New Deal:
It’s worth noting, for example, that the second act to become law under the New Deal, after the Emergency Banking Act, which was a progressive piece of legislation, was a conservative bill, the Economy Act. It cut salaries of government employees and benefits to veterans, the latter by 15 percent. Arthur Schlesinger, in The Coming of the New Deal, writes that literally an hour after signing the banking act, Roosevelt outlined this bill to congressional leaders, saying the next day and sounding more than a little like some Robert Rubin progenitor had been whispering in his ear: “For three long years, the federal government has been on the road toward bankruptcy.” (And maybe one had: Schlesinger notes that Roosevelt’s budget director, Lewis Douglas, was certainly no Keynesian.) Just imagine Obama having tried something like that, alienating both veterans and AFSCME within a week of taking office. The Economy Act was opposed by many liberals in the House, so FDR turned to conservative Democrats and Republicans, who passed it.
Of course to argue “other presidents have done bad things so it’s okay for Obama to do bad things” would be illogical. But it is worth maintaining perspective. There’s never been a president who did the right thing all the time. On the big picture, FDR made his peace with segregation and LBJ led us into Vietnam. But if you look at the history in detail, you see many smaller fights and betrayals that were the subject of much passionate fighting at the time they occurred. Stepping back further, this stuff gets smoothed out and drops from view.
Another thing worth noting in this regard is, of course, the internment of Japanese-Americans.
And it’s also worth saying that in addition to good “liberal” things and bad “conservative” things, FDR also did some stuff that it would hardly occur to anyone to do today like deliberately creating government-sponsored cartels to shield business from harmful competition.