By Stanley Kutler
Since Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, the media have cast their reporting under the catchy title of “The First 100 Days.” CNN has designated April 29 as “Report Card Day” for the Obama administration. Even the traditionally staid New York Times has succumbed to the breezy—and terribly inappropriate—comparison to the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term, in 1933. Congressional Republicans reportedly are combing Amity Shlaes’ anti-Roosevelt account of the Great Depression, “The Forgotten Man,” to find how Roosevelt “demonized” Wall Street and big business in that period. Finally, not to be outdone, The New Yorker will convene a “summit” for “The Next 100 Days.”
The notion of 100 days to measure any new president is meaningless, a contrived metric for evaluating Obama or anyone else. It is true that FDR’s first 100 days witnessed an almost unprecedented flurry of legislation that began to fundamentally alter the old order. Congress vigorously responded to the president’s call for “bold, persistent experimentation.” Legislation provided relief measures that involved the government as both provider of a “dole” and the “employer of last resort.” Recovery measures took first, sometimes stumbling steps to stimulate the economy. Reform measures such as the Glass-Steagall Act divorced investment banks from commercial banking, and Congress initiated a veritable alphabet soup of agencies to administer the new programs.
But “the first 100 days” hardly captures the history of the New Deal, and certainly isn’t a report card of its achievements. The following years produced landmark legislation that transformed commercial farming, labor-management relations, securities and commodities transactions, and, of course, the Social Security Act, which brought the still-enduring monument of insuring old-age pensions.
Roosevelt’s first 100 days occurred at another time, another place. The Great Depression dramatically gained momentum, spreading to all segments of the country, with one in four workers unemployed and the nation’s banking system teetered on the verge of collapse. Even conservative Republicans knew they could not support Herbert Hoover’s unsuccessful methods.
The New Deal measures did not spring full-blown from FDR’s inauguration and the opening of a new Congress. Reform ideas had been in the air throughout the previous decade—unlike, say, the 1990s—and, most strikingly, they were not partisan, unlike now. In the 1930s, progressive Republicans in Congress, still responsive to the party’s Theodore Roosevelt legacy, regularly supported the administration’s efforts. Sens. Robert La Follette Jr., George W. Norris and Bronson Cutting, among other Republicans, readily voted for the president’s initiatives. Many of the measures had been proposed and debated for years. Since the mid-1920s, Norris had led the fight to convert Muscle Shoals, a federally owned dam in Alabama, into a means of cheap power and flood control for the Tennessee Valley. Congress had considered relief legislation and insuring bank deposits since 1931. Not surprisingly, FDR at first opposed the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. measure, apparently because he saw it as too radical, but when he realized how popular it was across the political spectrum he came around (Patrick Maney, “The Legend of FDR’s First 100 Days in Office”).
Perhaps all this talk of 100 days is meant to establish a deadline for the current mode of criticism. Perhaps after April 29, CNN will bring back Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak and Glenn Beck and give them carte blanche to mug the president. Were the sights and sounds of “Tea Cup Day,” with slogans worthy of a neighborhood barroom brawl, a portent of what will come?
In breathless tones, CNN urges us to watch the unfolding of Barack Obama’s “Report Card” on April 29. What grades will he receive? Certainly the president has leapfrogged over his predecessor in the image he has projected abroad. But two trips, handshake with Hugo Chavez and all, give us only a symbolic snapshot for now. What counts is whether and how he will re-regulate banking and financial operations, restructure the auto industry, stimulate job growth, truly close Guantanamo and determine the lawful status of detainees, improve relations with Cuba, Iran and Venezuela, implement an exit strategy for Iraq and Afghanistan, and redirect and revitalize such institutions as the Pentagon and the CIA.
Obviously, the president can receive only an “incomplete” at the moment. It is the only fair and intelligent grade, despite media hoopla surrounding the first 100 days. The past three months hardly constitute a legacy, just as FDR’s early days are not any measure of his legacy. We judge Roosevelt by his achievements over 12 years, not a mere, fleeting 100 days. For now, we can watch, with hope and a critical eye, the remaining 1,360 days of Obama’s term, if not beyond.
Stanley Kutler is the author of the “Wars of Watergate” and other writings.
White House / Pete Souza