Bryan Caplan writes a review of V.O. Key's classic The Responsible Electorate (1966) which argues that "democracy works well because the electorate rewards success and punishes failure". This obviously doesn't sit well with Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, and regular opiner that voters aren't that enlightened (which strangely enough never wins censure from his co-blogger, Arnold Kling, who regularly criticizes liberals for thinking the electorate is dumb even though, (1.) I'm not aware of any liberal save Bill Maher who has made such a claim, and (2.) Caplan makes the claim regularly). One thing that Caplan remarks on is the case of FDR. Caplan writes: "Key's passage [about Roosevelt] is bizarre on several levels. The most glaring: Roosevelt is the best U.S. counter-example to the thesis that voters reward politicians for delivering prosperity and peace. FDR's track record is bizarrely bleak: Nine years of uninterrupted depression, followed by four years of war that left half of Europe in the hands of Stalinist Russia - one of the two original aggressor nations. And the American voter loved him anyway!"
I did a double-take when I read this. The Depression was deep and it stayed deep, of course. But the economy grew through Roosevelt's entire first term! The recovery was far too slow, and we know more now why, but the only major blemish on the recovery and Roosevelt's record was 1937, and that happened after the 1936 election (so it makes sense it didn't do that much to his re-election prospects). How is Caplan missing this Roosevelt growth period? It wasn't an ideal economy, but it seems like American voters are better at thinking in terms of counter-factuals than we give them credit for (and better than a lot of economists today).
I'm also not sure why Caplan thinks the war is a mark against Roosevelt and not for him. George W. Bush waged war against a fascist too, but a relatively inert fascist (at least as far as world affairs are concerned - certainly not if you lived in Iraq). Roosevelt waged war against a fascist across the Atlantic that was taking over Western civilization and bombing the hell out of our ally Britain, and a fascist across the Pacific that had taken over China (mother-$%^&ing CHINA!) and was impinging on our ally Australia. Oh ya - and they bombed us too and destroyed a substantial portion of our fleet. What the hell is Caplan thinking? He really thinks this is something Roosevelt should be punished at the polls for?!?!? Why - because the enemy of my enemy is my friend and so we had Uncle Joe for a few years? I'm no war-monger and I think nationalism is a disease (although an improvement on feudal fiefdoms), but I don't think those views give me or anyone else license to turn a blind eye to what it was we accomplished in the second World War.
I know libertarians have an acute distaste for certain presidents. Lincoln was a protectionist and took liberties with the Constitution. Wilson was a racist and a progressive egghead. OK. I draw the line at Roosevelt, though. Come on! Dispute specific policies, fine - be my guest. But don't play dumb as to why the American people sent him to the White House twice as many times as any other president in our history and why he is the only president in the twentieth century that has really, substantially, unequivocally joined the pantheon of great American leaders that is usually reserved for the Founders.