But we should be mindful of what happened to Roosevelt’s New Deal—the greatest aggrandizement of governmental power in our history—after his 1936 landslide reelection and his ill-conceived effort to aggrandize his power further by “packing” the Supreme Court. The voters concluded that Roosevelt had gone far enough, and they placed a clamp on his presidency. Republicans picked up eighty House seats in 1938 and six Senate seats. There was no New Deal reversal, nor would there be one, because the American people liked the country’s new power alignments. But further significant governmental expansion now wasn’t in the cards.
That was the state of play in American politics through the Republican presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, who never sought to dismantle the New Deal, because he knew the voters wouldn’t stand for it. At the same time, he also knew the voters weren’t looking for any serious expansion.
But the country faced a huge agenda of unfinished business in the area of civil rights, and Lyndon Johnson leveraged the civic emotions of the Kennedy assassination to address that lingering necessity through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In the process, he fostered a further expansion in the scope and reach of the federal government, then extended this expansion further with his Great Society initiatives to fight poverty, establish Medicare and Medicaid, and address housing, education and nutrition issues. Again, the American people generally accepted this expanded governmental role, over the loud objections of conservatives, but then resisted efforts to expand it further.