Power  /  Retrieval

FDR’s Second 100 Days Were Cooler Than His First 100 Days

Let's talk about the period when Roosevelt actually created the modern welfare state.

We have now made it past Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, the traditional point at which political journalists pass sage judgment on the early results of a new presidency (or at least tap out a few saved-up think pieces in need of a hook). The country owes this practice to Franklin Roosevelt, who in July of 1933 sat down for one of his early fireside chats and told radio listeners that he wanted to reflect on “the hundred days which had been devoted to the starting of the wheels of the New Deal.” Reporters have been using it as a benchmark for taking stock ever since.

Does the custom still make any sense today? Maybe. Some research has found that presidents really have had more success passing legislation during their first 100 days than later on, possibly because they have tended to enjoy a moment of bipartisan approval early in their terms. These honeymoon periods might be thing of the past, however, thanks to increasing partisan polarization, which means the first three months might not matter in quite the same way they used to.

But whether or not it makes practical sense, marking the first 100 days bugs me purely from the standpoint of historical appreciation. FDR’s first 100 Days, momentous as they were, are arguably a tiny bit overrated in the popular imagination. And the focus on them obscures the fact that Roosevelt truly cemented his domestic legacy in a period known as the Second 100 Days—which took place two years later, in 1935. That’s when we got little things like Social Security and the foundation of modern labor law. The commentating class basically ignores that stretch, rather than think about what lessons it might hold.

Roosevelt’s first 100 days were really the disaster-response period of his presidency, the moment when the new chief executive grabbed the fire hose and started putting out the flames that had not just engulfed the economy—around a quarter of Americans were unemployed, with the share in some cities vastly higher—but were threatening to destroy the foundations of capitalism. After taking the oath of office in March, he called a special three-month session of Congress, which proceeded to pass some 76 pieces of legislation.

FDR’s achievements in this period were substantial. He successfully halted a spiraling financial crisis by declaring a national bank holiday, and signed reforms to prevent future meltdowns. He freed the U.S. from the shackles of the gold standard, legalized beer (cheers!), stood up public works and relief agencies, rescued rural America with farm subsidies, launched a massive regional development effort by creating the Tennessee Valley Authority, and much more. Though it would ultimately take the industrial frenzy of World War II to restore full prosperity to the United States, the economy did begin to heal and the sense of impending calamity faded.