Roosevelt's knack for picking the right man (or right woman: Frances Perkins was a fine secretary of labor) is the central theme of Eric Larrabee's wonderful 1987 book, "Commander in Chief."
Larrabee shows how FDR selected the unflappable George Marshall to organize a vastly expanded Army, the splenetic Ernest King to lead an aggressive Navy, the grandioloquent Douglas MacArthur to dramatize the side conflict in the South Pacific and the emollient Dwight Eisenhower to hold together fractious Allied coalition forces. No other president has made such excellent military appointments right off the bat.
Roosevelt's knack is apparent in domestic appointments, as well. He picked social worker Harry Hopkins to run a winter work relief program in late 1933. In two weeks Hopkins had 4 million on the payroll. When spring came, Roosevelt ordered the program shut down. In two weeks, the payroll was down to zero.
After that, Roosevelt trusted Hopkins to deal with political bosses -- and with top-level negotiations with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin during World War II.
Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, Hopkins's bureaucratic rival, was a stickler for detail and scourge of graft. But he spent billions bringing in big projects under budget and on time.
Roosevelt picked some good regulators, too -- stock speculator Joseph Kennedy to set up the Securities and Exchange Commission, Utah banker Marriner Eccles to run the Federal Reserve.
FDR's knack for choosing the right person for important jobs resulted from some unknowable combination of knowledge and intuition. It also showed an overriding concern for getting results.
It's not clear that Barack Obama shares that determination. In his defense, he has made some high-quality appointments, and Roosevelt's administrators did not face today's tangle of legalistic requirements and environmental restrictions.
But New Deal legislation tended to run dozens of pages rather than thousands. And some unworkable laws were overturned by the Supreme Court.
Roosevelt's example shines through history. But Obama's continuing stumbles show that it's a hard -- and politically damaging -- example to follow. Big government these days is harder than FDR made it look.
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