Guest Column (4/30/09)

The first 100 days — then and now

April 30, 2009

By David B. Woolner

After 100 days in office, the comparisons between President Barack Obama and Franklin D. Roosevelt seem as valid as ever.

Both leaders have had to cope with an unprecedented global financial crisis, a deteriorating economy, high unemployment and an electorate steeped in fear and apprehension about the future. Both men have also had to contend with a worldwide security crisis; inspired in FDR’s case by the pernicious ideology of fascism, and in Obama’s by the rise of a deadly form of international terrorism driven by religious extremists. Both men have also had to share the blessing — or burden — of high expectations, not only among the American public, but among people the world over, where their assumption of office has been widely heralded as the beginning of a new day.

But in spite of these and other similarities, there are some striking differences between their first 100 days that may provide the current president and his colleagues in Congress with some food for thought.

One clear distinction is the reaction of the Republican Congressional leadership to the president’s initial legislative agenda. In FDR’s day, many Republicans not only responded positively to the president’s call for bipartisanship, they also lent their support to some of the most significant measures to come out of the 100 days, including the Federal Emergency Relief Act and the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA — our nation’s first electric public utility. In short, this “unprecedented national emergency” met with unprecedented national cooperation, among Democrats and Republicans, and among the executive and legislative branches of government.

A second clear distinction involves America’s standing overseas. Although FDR did not attend, he sent a high level delegation (led by his secretary of state, Cordell Hull) to Great Britain in June 1933 to attend the long anticipated “London Monetary and Economic Conference.” Attended by 66 nations, and convened to bring about an international response to the global economic crisis, FDR famously “torpedoed” the conference by rejecting a temporary currency stabilization agreement that was negotiated in London and seen as critical to the ability of the conference to continue its work. His decision to do so — particularly after the terms of the temporary agreement had been secured — greatly disappointed the British, French and other delegations. As a result, his international reputation suffered for a time and there were fears — which subsequently proved unfounded — that FDR was an economic nationalist.

By contrast, Obama’s performance at the recent G-20 meeting in London has been a 10-strike. The president may not have gotten all he wanted in London, but his willingness to listen to and work with the leaders of the world’s leading industrialized nations, along with his ensuing visits to France and Turkey, have restored the international community’s faith in American leadership and significantly enhanced the confidence of people the world over that together we will get through this crisis.

This last point brings us back to the most significant similarity between the two men — their ability to inspire hope in moments of despair and their willingness to act. FDR, like Obama, never lost faith in the ability of the American people to restore the nation to prosperity. But he understood that government, which he wisely called “ourselves and not an alien power over us,” had a vital role to play in this process. By restoring the people’s faith in government, then, FDR in essence restored their faith in themselves. President Obama and our leadership in Congress would be wise to do the same.


David Woolner is senior vice president of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and co-editor of “FDR’s World: War, Peace, and Legacy.”