26 January, 2009Issue 8.1North AmericaPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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One Hundred Days Until Disappointment

Daniel Hemel

FDRAdam Cohen
Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the
Hundred Days That Created Modern America

The Penguin Press, 2009
318 pages
ISBN 978-1594201967

One hundred days after President Barack Obama’s inauguration, the US still will be in a recession. The US federal government still will be neck-deep in debt, and state governments still will be dead broke. Big banks still will be dangerously undercapitalised. And the nation’s highway system still will be falling apart.

This is not to say that Obama’s first 100 days will be a failure. But even the most successful first 100 days in US presidential history, the beginning of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term in 1933, resulted in only limited achievements.

Despite a flurry of legislative activity during the first 100 days, FDR’s most significant domestic policy accomplishments came later. FDR signed the Social Security Act into law on Day 893 of his presidency. The Fair Labor Standards Act, establishing the first mandatory federal minimum wage, took effect on Day 1940. One hundred days after FDR took office, the US unemployment rate was 25%—higher than it had been when FDR was elected the previous November. Three thousand days passed before the unemployment rate finally dipped below double digits. Although historians have held FDR up as an example of what a president can do in 100 days, he might be more accurately cited as an example of what a president cannot do in such a short time.

The foremost achievements of FDR’s vaunted “100 days”—the Glass-Steagall Act (which reformed the US banking system) and the National Industrial Recovery Act (the centerpiece of his “New Deal”)—were actually signed into law on 16 June 1933, the 105th day of his presidency. But even though the magic number “100” is arbitrary and not quite accurate in the case of FDR, the mystique of his first 100 days continues to capture the American imagination. FDR’s first 100 days set a gold standard for presidents to come (though FDR took the US dollar off the gold standard on Day 47).

According to data from the search engine LexisNexis, US newspapers made reference to Obama’s “first 100 days” in 2,469 articles that were published during the interregnum between the election and the inauguration. Meanwhile, FDR’s first 100 days have spawned a book publishing mini-industry. Cambridge historian Anthony Badger and Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter both weighed in recently with monographs on the subject. Now comes Adam Cohen, assistant editorial page editor at the New York Times, with his well-timed tome Nothing to Fear.

FDR’s first 100 days may be a model for decisive presidential action, but in truth, as Cohen shows, Roosevelt entered the White House with an economic philosophy that was still inchoate. FDR believed that government should “live within its means”, and he slashed federal department budgets by 25% during his first 100 days in an effort to erase the deficit. This is the exact opposite of what Keynesian economics would recommend a president do amidst a depression. By the end of the 100 days, FDR had reversed course: he signed off on a $3.3 billion public works program that pushed the federal government deeply into debt.

Through rigorous research and pithy prose, Cohen penetrates the mystery surrounding FDR’s bipolar budgetary policy. The fickle FDR seemingly succumbed to whichever adviser had spoken to him last. In conversations with his fiscally conservative budget director, Lewis Douglas, FDR was a deficit hawk. In conversations with his passionately progressive secretary of labor, Frances Perkins, FDR was a free-spending social democrat.

In the bureaucratic song-and-dance of FDR’s first 100 days, Perkins, the first female Cabinet member in US history, picked up on the rhythm: she slyly scheduled meetings with the president right before he made major decisions. In Cohen’s narrative, Perkins plays the heroine while Douglas plays the villain; the impressionable president is relegated to a supporting-actor role. For a Keynesian like Cohen, the ending is a happy one: Perkins prevails; Douglas resigns; and FDR goes down in history as a spectacular big spender rather than a Scrooge-like budget-cutter.

But the curtain falls too early on Cohen’s drama. Cohen contends that FDR’s first 100 days constituted “the third great revolution in American history” (after the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War) because “Roosevelt and his advisers introduced a new philosophy, one that held that Americans had responsibilities to one another, and that the government had a duty to intervene when capitalism failed”. Yet after the first 100 days, FDR himself was not sold on his “new philosophy”.

In March 1934, when Congress backed a bill restoring $228 million in benefits for war veterans and federal workers—benefits that had been cut by FDR during his first 100 days—FDR vetoed the measure. The president’s fiscal conservatism was so out-of-tune from the American people that Congress overrode the veto, forcing the benefits bill into law. As FDR friend Jimmy Byrnes wrote (and Cohen quotes), the president’s wrangle with Congress in March 1934 “entirely changed [his] attitude toward economy measures”; it was then—not during the first 100 days—that FDR stopped being so stingy with federal funds.

Even Byrnes might be overstating the speed of FDR’s philosophical shift. At the beginning of his second term, FDR declared that he would balance the budget by the following year. (His attempt had a disastrous impact on the US economy; the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined by half, and the unemployment rate shot up five percentage points.) It was not until 1938 that FDR finally embraced Keynesianism. (That spring, the president eschewed his balanced-budget objective and approved the largest public works package in American history up to that date.) The New Deal might have spawned a “new philosophy” of federal intervention in the economy, but it took nearly 2,000 days—not 100—for FDR to embrace the doctrine in full.

The presidents who followed FDR also took time to find their footing. Harry S Truman stumbled through his first 100 days and did not sign the Marshall Plan into law until Day 1,088 of his presidency. Dwight D. Eisenhower had a similarly slow start: his crowning domestic policy accomplishment—the creation of the interstate highway system—did not come until Day 1,257. Even so, Truman and Eisenhower stack up well against John F. Kennedy, whose first 100 days were an absolute disaster. (The failed invasion of Cuba came on Day 88 of his short tenure.) JFK was not the only president to approve a covert and catastrophic invasion in his first 100 days. Richard Nixon launched the now-notorious secret bombing of Cambodia came on Day 58.

There is no correlation between a president’s accomplishments in his first 100 days and his long-term legacy. Perhaps the most successful post-FDR president in his first 100 days was Bill Clinton, who signed the Family and Medical Leave Act into law on Day 17. But the rest of his domestic agenda—most notably, universal health care—would be doomed by deadlock in Congress. By contrast, Lyndon B. Johnson did more than any other post-FDR president to reshape US domestic policy, but it took him 224 days before he scored his first great legislative victory, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Gerald Ford shot himself in the foot (figuratively) in his first 100 days by pardoning ex-President Nixon (and thus nixing his own reelection prospects). Congress shot down (figuratively) Jimmy Carter’s plan to pare pork-barrel spending in the first 100 days. Ronald Reagan was shot down (literally) on his Day 70: the bullet missed his heart by less than an inch.

George H. W. Bush adopted a smart, safe strategy for his first 100 days: aim low. “We didn’t come here throwing the rascals out to try to do something, correct all the ills of the world, in 100 days,” he told reporters during a press conference on Day 91. (In that respect, he certainly succeeded: he did not correct any ills in his first 100 days.) George W. Bush inherited his father’s slow-going approach: in his first 100 days, he created a White House office for faith-based initiatives and (somewhat impressively) shook the hand of every Western Hemisphere head of state except for Fidel Castro. But the major plank of his campaign platform—a $1.6 trillion tax-slashing plan—did not take effect until Day 139.

In short, even if Obama accomplishes very little in his first 100 days, he still may outpace the pack of past presidents. Although his predecessors have set the standard quite low, the continued American obsession with the “100 days” idea places the bar impossibly high. Accordingly, Obama is stealing a page from the elder Bush’s playbook: the new president is trying to contain expectations. “The first 100 days is going to be important, but it’s probably going to be more like the first 1,000 days that makes a difference,” Obama said in an October interview with a Colorado radio station.

He is right. The first 100 days are an artifact from a bygone era. In FDR’s time, Congress was on recess when the president took office. In order to pass any legislation, FDR had to bring the Congress back to Washington—and he had to act quickly before lawmakers left the capital once again. Now, Congress convenes in January and it will remain in session until late October, if not beyond that. President Obama has more time at his disposal.

He might not have enough time to browse through history books, but Obama has said that he is studying FDR’s first 100 days. Moreover, Cohen says he sent galleys of his book to the Obama transition team. If the galleys did make their way to the new president, let’s hope that Obama looked beyond Cohen’s subtitle (“The Hundred Days That Created Modern America”) and grasped the subtler lessons of the book. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and modern America wasn’t built in 100.

The New Deal might have been the “third great revolution in American history”, but in America, “revolution” is a plodding process. The American Revolutionary War took eight years. The American Civil War took half as much time, but the real end to the “second great revolution in American history”—the long-awaited extension of equal rights to African-Americans—did not come for another century. Even today, despite Obama’s election, that second revolution remains incomplete. And the “third great revolution” is ongoing as well: on November 14, 1934, as part of his New Deal, FDR promised a national health insurance system “soon or later on”. It has been 27,100 days since then-and we’re still waiting.

If FDR had been judged on his first 100 days, he would have been a failure. Fortunately, most Americans suspended judgment until FDR’s policies began to take effect (and until FDR’s philosophy began to take shape). In his inaugural speech, Obama urged Americans to forge ahead with “eyes fixed on the horizon”. That horizon is far more than 100 days away.

Daniel Hemel is an MPhil candidate in International Relations at New College, Oxford. A senior editor of the Oxonian Review, he is writing a thesis on global financial regulation.