The Difference Between a Great President and a Terrible One is Empathy

tags: FDR, presidential history, Franklin Roosevelt, Donald Trump, COVID-19

Lindsay Chervinsky is the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.

Asthe impeachment trial in the Senate begins today, the country is grappling with the final weeks of the 45th president. In the days leading up to the inauguration, Donald Trump’s cemented his presidential legacy by inciting a seditionist insurrection. On January 6, the same day rioters attacked the U.S. Capitol, over 4,000 people died from COVID-19. When Trump left office, the death toll passed 400,000–70,000 more than the number of Americans killed in combat in World War II. In his inaugural address, President Joe Biden noted this dark milestone. President Trump remained silent. His indifference to American suffering and silence in the face of the national crisis should be remembered alongside the violent attacks on January 6. Historical comparisons between President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s war leadership and President Trump’s pandemic response reveal the failure of Trump’s presidency and should define his legacy.

In 1921, Franklin D. Roosevelt was struck down by a mysterious disease. Although he survived, his subsequent paralysis gave him a new perspective on humanity. FDR had done nothing wrong, and yet he found himself confined to a wheelchair. His disease helped him to develop a newfound empathy, especially for others who were also suffering through no fault of their own.

In the darkest moments of the Great Depression, FDR won the presidential election by promising to put people back to work and to protect the most vulnerable citizens. FDR understood that Americans took pride in doing a good day’s labor and in one of his many fireside chats, he assured listeners that his “first objective is to put men and women now on the relief rolls to work.”

President Trump’s response to American life was the exact opposite. Not only did he not care, he actively downplayed the death and suffering. In July, Trump was asked what the administration was doing to address the 1,000 deaths-per-day death rate. He replied, “They are dying. That’s true. And you — it is what it is.” He’s also said that the administration has “done a great job.” As the death rates soared and unemployment benefits lapsed, he spent the holidays golfing at his resort in Florida.

After his reelection, FDR turned his attention to the looming war. In his fireside chats, he regularly applauded the dedication of the troops fighting abroad. On September 7, 1942, FDR told the heroic story of Lieutenant John James Powers, who died in a bombing mission against the Japanese navy. The following summer, FDR encouraged Congress to adopt a jobs and training program to aid the soldiers returning from war: “The members of the armed forces have been compelled to make greater economic sacrifice and every other kind of sacrifice than the rest of us, and they are entitled to definite action to help take care of their special problems.”


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