The First 100 Days of President Barack Obama

(10 am – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Seventy-five years ago March 4, as I wrote here on the anniversary three months ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated a period of intense activity that would afterwards set the standard – never again attained – for the successful beginning of a President’s term of office. It was subsequently called the “100 Days.”

Of late, when discussion is not focused on who should or should not chosen for Vice President or the new Cabinet, some people have been talking about Senator – or, rather, President – Obama’s first hundred days, offering prescriptions for what he should try to accomplish and what tone he should try to establish during that brief window of opportunity. In the case of former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson and Libertarian talk-show host Neil Boortz, the talk is about the potential for early missteps that could plague him for the rest of his Presidency.

If he wins in November, should President Obama try to discard the whole concept of the 100 Days, which originally was a mere accident? Is it now an obstacle to good governance? And if so, is it even possible to circumvent the inevitable media frenzy surrounding something so deeply entrenched in our political psyche?  

Many people assume that FDR arrived in the White House with a blueprint labeled the “New Deal,” part of a full-bore Democratic Party plan for rousting the nation out of the Depression that had put 25% of the work force onto the streets and was sparking calls for red revolution or, far more commonly, the kind of rule that Mussolini had brought to Italy. He didn’t. The New Deal catchphrase, which was not original – Lincoln had used it, and other politicians, too – was just happenstance in Roosevelt’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Chicago the summer of ’32. FDR speechwriter Samuel Rosenman later said, “I had not the slightest idea that it would take hold the way it did, nor did the Governor [Roosevelt] when he read and revised what I had written. …It was simply one of those phrases that catch public fancy and survive.”

Not only had Roosevelt not campaigned on a liberal platform, but the word liberal meant something quite different than it does now. Indeed, it would be easy to characterize the tenor of the campaign that summer and early autumn as one of hope and change, without very many specifics. The latter of necessity, because Roosevelt didn’t yet have any. It was during the four-month transition phase between the November election and the March inauguration that Frances Perkins – soon to be the first woman to serve in a President’s Cabinet (as Labor Secretary 1933-45) – who kindled FDR’s interest in what became a reinvention of the social contract, concepts that today we often think of as typifying the New Deal. Out of their talks came the social safety net and a system of regulations that Republicans and Democratic enablers have been trying with considerable success to shred since 1981. Said Perkins years later, “The notion that the New Deal had a preconceived theoretical position is ridiculous.”

Roosevelt’s Inaugural oration, preface to the 100 Days, is now remembered primarily for a single powerful, inspirational, but, at close scrutiny, nonsensical phrase: “So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Given the soup kitchens, the first omens of renewed imperialist warfare and the fascistic persuasions of some leading American capitalists, there was, in fact, much to fear.

But the phrase itself stood out in a speech in which Roosevelt spoke nine permutations of “This nation asks for action, and action now”; “We must act, we must act quickly”; People want “direct, vigorous action.” As Jonathan Alter wrote in The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, “In the argot of a later age, Roosevelt was relentlessly on message.” He spurred hope in the face of despair by force of personality.

That speech began the longest presidency in U.S. history, a presidency which would remake the executive branch both in what it does and what citizens expect it to do. The presidency as we understand it began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But when he gave the speech on March 4, Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust,” as his academic and economic advisors came to be known, had yet to craft a single piece of legislation. By June 16, 15 new laws had been signed, As William Leuchtenburg wrote in The FDR Years: On Roosevelt and His Legacy, Congress “did not so much debate the bills it passed … as salute them as they went sailing by.” Roosevelt operated as Legislator-in-Chief, and a mighty successful one.

The legislation – some of it conservative, most of it moderate, none of it radical, all of it experimental – emerged from no umbrella plan or consistent ideology. It was rather an experimental goulash. As one of the Brain Trusters, Columbia University Professor Raymond Moley, wrote years later, it didn’t make much difference to many people what the specific policies would be: “It was enough to know that something was happening that had not happened before. The American people wanted their government to do something, anything, so long as it acted with assurance and vigor.” That was Roosevelt’s strength.

As I have noted previously:

Just how desperate the situation was when Roosevelt arrived at the inaugural podium after a silent ride in an open limousine with Herbert Hoover that cold, gray March day 75 years ago is difficult to imagine for most Americans today. A fourth of the workforce was jobless, foreclosures on homes and farms were rampant, hoarding of gold and paper money had helped generate 11,000 bank failures, and the ideas of totalitarian leadership – particularly some brand of fascism – had gained considerable currency. Alfred Toynbee, the British historian, opined: “In 1931, men and women all over the world were seriously contemplating and frankly discussing the possibility that the Western system of Society might break down and cease to work.” And, in the summer of 1932, John Maynard Keynes, who was to have significant influence on the later New Deal but none on the Hundred Days legislation, replied to a journalist’s question about whether there had been anything like the Depression in the past: “Yes, it was called the Dark Ages, and it lasted four hundred years.”

As Arthur Schlessinger wrote in The New York Times on the 50th anniversary of the 100 Days:

Who can now imagine a day when America offered no Social Security, no unemployment compensation, no food stamps, no Federal guarantee of bank deposits, no Federal supervision of the stock market, no Federal protection for collective bargaining, no Federal standards for wages and hours, no Federal support for farm prices or rural electrification, no Federal refinancing for farm and home mortgages, no Federal commitment to high employment or to equal opportunity – in short, no Federal responsibility for Americans who found themselves, through no fault of their own, in economic or social distress?

(A synopsis of FDR’s 100 Days legislation can be found at conclusion of this essay.)

January 20, 2009

So, what of President Obama’s first hundred days? If he gets to call the Oval Office his own come January, what should he undertake in that precious honeymoon period with all eyes of this Internet age focused far more intensely on him than any preceding President? Should that period be crammed full or sprinkled with just a few major initiatives?

We progressives are often chastised for our laundry-list approach to politics, and given eight nightmare years capping off more than a quarter-century of right-wing efforts to dismantle the FDR legacy and shred the Constitution, among other things, the list is even longer than usual now. Some of us can come up with a hundred things we’d like to see done in those hundred days. We’ve got the economy and jobs on our minds, and torture, and war, and global warming, and globalization, and human rights, and heterosexism, and the military-industrial-congressional complex, and civil liberties, and health care, and trials for war criminals, and energy prices, and education, and reproductive rights, and the Constitution, and housing, and campaign finance reform …

But even the most idealistic among us knows better than to expect action on all fronts. Even a landslide President has only so much political capital.

However, with a strong majority in Congress, for which there now seems every likelihood, should – could – Obama assume FDR’s role as Legislator-in-Chief to pressure and cajole a dozen or so bills into law in those first hundred or so days? Would that be reaching too far, too fast? After all, Obama has made compromise, and working “across the aisle,” watchwords of his candidacy. Compromise takes time. But would too much accommodation undermine the transformation that so many Americans are hoping will arrive at the White House with Obama?

Although the Senator has been vague on details in some policy areas, he has offered far more evidence of his direction five months before the election than Roosevelt did on Inaugural Day. Unlike many people of FDR’s time, who wanted action without delay and to hell with the details, some of us progressives, particularly those who backed other candidates in the primaries, can think of important issues on which we might prefer Obama not to act, at least not immediately, because we’re not satisfied with what he has proposed. But it’s safe to say, I believe, that everyone who now supports Obama, whenever they came to that support, wants, as in Roosevelt’s time, some action right away. Also safe to say, we don’t agree among ourselves on the priorities.

The Senator himself has made clear that one of his first tasks will be to review every executive order issued since January 2001. Repairing some of the damage inflicted upon the nation by Cheney-Bush is most certainly a crucial place for a new President to begin.

Just over a week ago, Obama reiterated at a Denver fundraiser what he told Bill Beaman at Reader’s Digest last October, that in his first hundred days he would meet immediately with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and plot a new direction in Iraq. His first domestic effort:

…will be to introduce a universal health bill … I’d want to present this plan not as a done deal but present a basic outline to work with Congress and members of both parties to get it done.  And say to the insurance companies and drug companies. You can have a seat at the table — you just can’t buy all the chips. So that would be my number one domestic priority. In subsequent days … I think we can really bring the country together around an aggressive energy plan that will involve increasing fuel efficiency standards, ratcheting down greenhouse gas emissions and setting up an auction for those emissions that generate monies we can use to create a very aggressive exploration for alternative fuels.

Music to many ears. But what other tunes could – and should – Obama play in those first hundred days?

+ + +

FDR’s 100 Days legislation, 1933:

Emergency Banking Relief Act (March 9): This authorized the Federal Reserve Board to issue currency secured by bank assets, directed the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to provide capital to private businesses to buy preferred bank stock, extended government control over gold holdings including the right to confiscate gold in exchange for paper, and mandated Treasury Department supervision of the permanent closing of insolvent banks and the reopening and reorganization of others. Some banks opened a week after the law passed, and within 300 days, 5,000 banks had reopened.

The Economy Act (March 20): Roosevelt was an orthodox fiscal conservative who strongly believed in balanced budgets. The law cut government salaries by 15%, reduced veterans pensions, and slashed budgets of government departments by 25 percent, for a total savings of half-a-billion dollars a year. Much of the savings came from dropping war veterans who were not disabled from the pension rolls, by cutting all Federal salaries 15%. Ninety House Democrats broke ranks. In June, Roosevelt admitted he had made a mistake and restored $50 million in veterans’ pensions. Congress restored $46,000,000 more. The act prompted the share-the-wealth campaign launched in 1934 by Senator Huey P. Long of Louisiana.

Beer and Wine Revenue Act (March 22): Besides legitimizing beer, and leading to the opening of breweries employing half a million people, the act imposed a $5 per barrel tax on beer and wine.

Emergency Conservation Work (ECW) Act (Civilian Conservation Corps) (March 31): One of the most successful laws of the Hundred Days and all New Deal legislation, and widely known at Roosevelt’s Tree Army, the CCC eventually employed 2 million men and a few women who planted an estimated 3 billion trees, fought fires, built flood-control levees and engaged in other conservation work that restored eroded soil, much of it in the South, and laid the foundation for tree plantations that still provide timber for the lumber industry. At the time, the chief opposition came from organized labor, appalled at the dollar-a-day wages CCC workers would earn , the loss of jobs for union workers and the involvement of the Army, which they union leaders thought might lead to regimentation of labor in other areas.

Agricultural Adjustment Act (May 12): The act, the foundation upon which the idea of agricultural subsidies remain with us, was meant to stabilize farm prices by subsidizing farmers to limit how much livestock and corn, wheat, cotton, rice, peanuts, tobacco and milk they produced. Farmers plowed under millions of acres of cotton, and in an extremely unpopular move at a time when many Americans were going without adequate food, growers were forced to slaughter 6 million “surplus” baby pigs and 220,000 pregnant cows. The Supreme Court ruled the law in 1936 on the grounds that it taxed some farmers to pay others. A revised version dealing with this matter was subsequently passed by Congress. Partly as a consequence of the AAA, farm income rose 50 percent during the first three years of the New Deal, although most of this came from government subsidies because farm prices did not rise as FDR had hoped.

Tennessee Valley Authority Act (May 18): The act led to the enhanced navigability of the Tennessee River, provided flood control, reforestation and improvement of marginal farm land, helped industrial and agricultural development, created a government-owned nitrate and phosphorus manufacturing facility, and generated The cheap electric power and housing to an impoverished area. Hugely successful, the TVA’s socialist overtones spurred conservatives to make sure its concept never extended beyond the Tennessee River.

National Industrial Recovery Act (June 16):  The act was set up to promote industrial growth, creating the National Recovery Administration, which had two purposes: stabilizing business with codes of “fair” competitive practices and, generating more consumer purchasing power by providing jobs, setting labor standards, and boosting wages. Trade unions like the NRA because it included their hopes for protection of basic hour and wage standards; liberals and some leftists saw in it the possibility for comprehensive planning. But the law was never enforced to benefit workers. Big business liked it because it established legal cartels and allowed them to write many of the rules. Small business hated it because the code – more than 3,000 administrative orders, 5,000 covered practices eventually – was so specific and intrusive, and sometimes contradictory. On top of this were interpretations and supplemental codes. The NRA was represented in business and factory windows across the nation with the famous blue eagle. But displaying one did not mean a merchant or manufacturer wasn’t secretly violating the codes, which were highly specific. The Supreme Court declared the codes unconstitutional in May 1935 in the case of Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, which ruled that the Act infringed upon states’ authority, unreasonably stretched the Commerce Clause, and gave legislative powers to the executive branch in violation of the nondelegation doctrine. By then, the law was highly unpopular and no attempt was made to rewrite as was done with the Agricultural Adjustment Act.

Federal Emergency Relief Act (May 12): The act funded unemployment compensation programs of the states, all of whose resources had been long before swamped by the scale of the depression. The objectives were to work cooperatively with state governments to make relief measures adequate and find or create jobs for employable people on the relief rolls. Run by Harry Hopkins, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration would eventually put 15 million people to work. One of the most important aspects of the law was that it established the concept that adequate public relief is a right of citizens.

Federal Securities Act (May 27): Also known as the Truth in Securities Act,” the act required that investors received significant information concerning securities being offered for public sale and prohibited misrepresentations and other fraud in their sale. Prior to this time, only state laws  (commonly referred to as blue sky laws for obvious reasons) governed securities sales. So began transparency in the sale of securities, something later backed up by the Securities and Exchange Act passed in 1934.

National Employment System Act (June 6): The act established the United States Employment Service to assist in coordinating the state-run public employment services throughout the country. One provision made it the purview of the Secretary of Labor to assure that unemployment insurance and employment service offices in each State were adequate.

Glass-Steagall Banking Reform Act (June 16): The act created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, insuring bank deposits up to $5,000, and separated commercial banking and investment banking, a move that met ferocious opposition in the banking community. With one stroke of his pen, Roosevelt, who had objected to the idea of insurance, calmed nervous depositors and ended the prospect of bank “runs.” Within six months, bank failures characteristic of the 1929-33 period ceased.

Home Owners Refinancing Act (June 13): The act, which later led to Federal Housing Administration and Federal National Mortgage Association, was passed at a time when 40 percent of the country’s 4 million homeowners faced foreclosure. The agency refinanced mortgages, made new loans, and extended advances to help with tax payments and repairs.

Farm Relief Act and the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act (May 12): The act allotted $200 million for refinancing mortgages to help farmers facing foreclosure.

Farm Credit Act (June 16): The act established a system of corporations and associations to provide operating loans to farmers on a short-term basis. That legislation also brought into the Farm Credit Administration the banks for cooperatives. (Taken together, the homeowners act and farm acts saved as many as one-fifth of the nation’s homes and farms from foreclosure.)

27 comments

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  1. Out of Iraq

    Review of Executive Orders

    CLEAN HOUSE – especially the Justice Department

    Once those are done, conversation can begin on policies like healthcare, climate crisis, etc.  

  2. Do everything he can to put a halt to the human rights abuses we call immigration enforcement.  Stop torturing families with these horrible raids and family prisons.

    Clean up the DOJ and direct the Attorney General to immediately build cases against those who politicized it as well as all Bushies accountable for their abuses of the law.

    Get us the hell out of Iraq and fire that bastard Petraeus.

    Normally domestic issues are my top priority, but accountability has to come first, imo and the restoration of the rule of law.  As for Iraq, we won’t have money for any domestic programs until we get the hell out of there.

  3. …I’d like to see him pardon a few hundred thousand Federal prisoners as his first priority.

    • Edger on June 6, 2008 at 07:21

    to press charges and have George Bush arrested.

  4. restore constitutional order to our gov’t; it’s balance of power and its mandate to be a gov’t for and by the people, not corporations.

    yeah. restore the ability of our gov’t to function.

  5. fantasy sports teams…. I can’t resist and am often disappointed.

    A few sentiments I will echo. Get out of Iraq. Come up with a new international humanitarian mission to deliver the basics like running water and electricity. I don’t care who heads it. Not us. No contractors.

    Health care and education reform proposals just an outline but with a commitment. I prefer universal health care myself. I mention education reform in terms of costs. Too many young people are being manipulated and gutted by predatory loans for college. We need some general legislation covering loan practises. I would love to ban those “Title Loan” places they are all over the south.

    Change lobbying rules. Pass legislation that bans politicians from becoming lobbyists of any type ( might make allowances for non profits ) for a minimum of five years. That ban would also cover friends, family members and business partners. I would rather ban corporate lobbyists all together.

    Energy reform. Something big grand and messy with the dimensions of the space program. I would have mandatory recycling and ban plastic bags but whatever.

    Farm reform. Money for the little guys and those doing organics. None for the agri-vultures.

    Immigration reform. Basically I would grandfather in everybody here without documentation on some kind of points program.

    I hate corporate welfare but I would allow it for anybody wanting to make a substantial contribution to American jobs.

    I would re-think the whole globalization/free trade stance.

    A bunch of other things that will occur to me much later.

    • Robyn on June 6, 2008 at 13:18

    …which is any mention of GLBT rights and issues.  Not in the first 100 days and I suspect not in the first term.  During any subsequent term, any discussion will have to wait until after the next election.

  6. Universal single-payer health care. No reason to give the insurance companies and pharmaceuticals a seat at the table. They’re the problem. And as long as we’re making historical comparisons — was big business invited to the table when the New Deal was created?

    • kj on June 6, 2008 at 14:51

    with what Obama has said to date. aggressive energy policy is a long-standing hope of mine. love that he’s going to review all Cheney’s dictates, health care and Bush’s Iraq Folly.

    very happy he chose to keep Howard 50-State-People-Powered on board. might be some hope yet to re: limiting the financial voice of lobbies.

    vision first, details later.  🙂  

    • kj on June 6, 2008 at 14:56

    essay, Meteor Blades.

    on a personal note, my parents were up there in years when i came along.  they both had vivid memories of what it took to survive during the Depression years.  we kids were steeped in their stories. the Depression was the reference point for nearly every decision they made later in life.

  7. So we don’t have to go through another 2 year, 1/2 billion dollar campaign season that highlights haircuts, cleavage….and who is or is not bitter

  8. Stop the war! and stop the continuing war crimes, rendition, torture, mercenaries, and whatever other dark and nasty shit  they have going. Stop this new war they want with Iran in it’s tracks. Reassess the ‘War on Terror” and join with other nations to deal with this.

    My grandmother who helped raise me had Roosevelt’s Freedoms with Rockwell illustrations hangin on the wall in her dining room. I grew up looking at these and thinking that these were the basics . Let’s reestablish these as priorities.

    The speech delivered by President Roosevelt incorporated the following section:

    ” In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

    The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.

    The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.

    The third is freedom from want–which, translated into universal terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.

    The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.

    That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

    – Franklin D. Roosevelt, excerpted from the Annual Message to the Congress, January 6, 1941    

  9. 2.  Universal single-payer health care.

    3.  Energy policy focused on conservation and alternative energies.

    4.  Election/Campaign finance reform.

    5.  Once a politician, never a lobbyist and vice versa.

    6.  Universal education.

    7.  Immigration reform, including grandfathering in those already here (unsure of the details).

    …and then on Wednesday, January 21, 2009….

    Only three wishes!?!  Drat!

    1.  Accountability

    2.  Out of Iraq

    3.  Review of Executive Orders

    …closely followed by repeal of the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act….

    What?  Yes, I know that’s more than three.  Dammit, I want it ALL and I want it NOW and I won’t take ‘Fuck Off’ for an answer!

    • Mu on June 7, 2008 at 14:22

    …before Gingrich and Limbaugh and (Dick) Armey and about 5,000 other assorted kooks and freaks and Right Wing Assholes started hammering on him.  Even the politically skillful Bill Clinton didn’t know what hit him.  His very first bill signed-into law?  The Family Medical Leave Act (which I think he signed within hours of being sworn in).  An incredibly patriotic and America-friendly first act by a President . . . ignored by the Media Whores.

    I think, I hope (heh), Obama will, (1) be absolutely braced for this kind of thing happening to him, and (2) will be ready for it with a media and PR machine that’ll push-back on this crap.  Of course, we’ve got to get Obama in the White House first.  “White” House?  Heh.

    It’s amazing that Bill Clinton’s ’92 campaign team (mainly Carville) created and perfected the Rapid Response Team, but when he actually became President he was usually just a punching bag.

    Mu . . .

  10. Fast-tracking alternative energy sources.  BTW, I don’t know if anyone saw Timmeh earlier today, discussing that (as he said, “though it’s unlikely”) what if Obama approached Al Gore, asked him to be VP, with the stipulation that a major part of his responsibilities would be fast-tracking alternative energy R & D.  

    Review of factors leading to job losses, including trade agreements, and outsourcing.

    Etc, etc, etc.

     

    • geomoo on June 8, 2008 at 06:02

    In other words, bring his claim that he can’t do it without us into reality aggressively and quickly.  Utilize the internet and the vast and varied resources of the good progressive bloggers and readers here.  Let citizen activists assume the role now played by corporate lobbyists.  This is my proposed antidote to biased media coverage and partisan attack.

  11. It’s going to be a lot of work cleaning up the mess that Bush made. But it would be nice for him to sit down and get a clear plan for when we will be OUT of Iraq. I’d like Attorney General John Edwards to review every executive order of BushCo and undo wrongs from that in addition to cleaning up the corruption in the Justice Department.

    Pass some real, aggressive energy legislation. Something like the New Apollo Energy Act

    Restore science to the government by signing the stem cell research bill. Pass the EFCA so unions can grow strong. Set out basic principles for universal health care.

    That’s not too much to ask I don’t think?

    -review every executive order of BushCo

    -Finalized plan to get out of Iraq

    -Clean House.

    -Apollo Energy Project

    -Stem Cell Research

    -EFCA

    -UHC principles.

    • robodd on June 8, 2008 at 20:20

    doesn’t have to wait 100 days.  

    Let’s stop FISA immunity now.  Begin investigations now.

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