In the lifetime between Lincoln's first inauguration and Roosevelt's, the nation grew into an industrial giant -- swelled with immigrants as no nation had ever been -- and into potentially the greatest military power on earth. But when Roosevelt took office, the economy was in a deathly downward spiral and demands for radical change were in the air.
Roosevelt's economic policies, aimed at freezing the economy in place, have been faulted for prolonging the depression and choking off economic growth. But critics should also credit him for what he didn't do. Roosevelt could have nationalized the banks in 1933; instead, he insured their depositors. He could have nationalized industries, as Woodrow Wilson had done in World War I. Instead, he regulated them, imposed unions on their managements and worked cooperatively with their executives in building the war industries into the arsenal of democracy that won World War II. In the process, the United States became the world's greatest military power, with responsibilities it has been grappling with ever since.
It seems unlikely that George W. Bush will be a giant in history like the presidents inaugurated 72, 144 and 216 years before. The threats to the nation are not as great. Yet his presidency may come to be seen as another turning point, and one in which the president's character, and the choices he need not have made but did make, could shape the nation for a lifetime to come.
Bush, as Yale's John Lewis Gaddis has noted, has transformed American foreign policy more than any president since Roosevelt and has decided to wield America's power proactively to advance liberty and democracy around the world. The recent advances toward democracy in the Middle East suggest he is on the side of history.
Bush is also working to transform government from the industrial era programs of Roosevelt's day to post-industrial era programs and has had some successes -- but how much is still uncertain. There will be turns in the road ahead, but Bush seems to be setting America on a course that was not inevitable and which could shape the nation for a lifetime to come.