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100 Days of Disquietude

Obama's first few months weren't as frenzied as Roosevelt's--but they might have been more productive.

There is no very good reason to judge a new president by his first 100 days. Some of our greatest presidents accomplished little in their first months. Some of our least successful had impressive beginnings. But ever since the New Deal trumpeted the successes of its own first 100 days, it has been common to take note of what subsequent presidents have done in the same period. President Obama is aware of the history. He read books about Roosevelt’s first 100 days before he took office, and some members of his team have referred often to what they hoped to accomplish in their first months. So it makes more than usual sense to consider what the new administration has accomplished in this short but significant period--one that has been less frenetic than Franklin Roosevelt’s, but in some ways more productive. (For photographs from Obama's first 100 days, click here.)

Franklin Roosevelt was a dynamo of energy in his first 100 days, and the frenzy of activity that he created was itself important in building confidence and optimism in the face of growing panic. Roosevelt’s inaugural address promised “action, and action now.” He made liberal use of radio, the first president to have done so, to make sure that Americans were aware of what he was doing. But most of all, he passed legislation--lots of it, and not all of it good.

One of his first bills, the Economy Act, reduced government spending in such areas as veteran benefits and the salaries of federal employees--and it actually exacerbated the nation’s greatest problem, deflation. The National Industrial Recovery Act, the most popular legislative achievement of Roosevelt’s first 100 days, created a corporatist behemoth that also promoted deflation by artificially increasing prices without increasing incomes. Its failure was visible well before the Supreme Court struck it down in 1935.

But in those early days, Roosevelt did more good than harm. He saved the financial system from collapse, almost certainly the most important event in the first 100 days, and perhaps in the first two years, of the administration. The “banking holiday” he declared immediately after his inauguration, the passage of the Glass-Steagall Act (which created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and whose repeal in 1999 is often blamed for much of our own present crisis), and the birth of the Securities and Exchange Commission (the undermining of which in recent years contributed to the financial collapse)--together, these measures helped the nation’s financial institutions to survive, even if they did not immediately flourish. Other New Deal measures in these first months helped create a significant public works program, jobs for the unemployed, relief for people in need, and aid to the staggering farm economy.

The Obama administration didn’t push through the sheer number of initiatives of the New Deal’s first months--but its achievements are impressive nevertheless, and appear more likely to create a better ratio between good programs and bad ones. Roosevelt’s efforts to stimulate economic growth through public works and relief programs were trivial compared to the enormity of Obama’s stimulus package (which some critics feel is itself inadequate to the need). His effort to stabilize and strengthen the banks is still a work in progress--and a much more difficult task than the one Roosevelt faced--but it far exceeds in size and expense any such effort in our history. His first budget, not yet through Congress, marks the boldest change in public policy since at least 1980 and offers the first realistic hope of serious health care reform since 1994.

Roosevelt in his first 100 days had few international challenges, other than avoiding bad proposals from Britain and other ailing nations. Obama faces a much more bewildering array of foreign policy problems. And while no major victories, military or diplomatic, are yet in sight, he has significantly changed the tone and image of American internationalism in ways that should make future progress more likely. He has repudiated the use of torture (and made public official documents confirming its use), reduced some of the discredited hype over the “war on terror,” treated friends and potential antagonists alike with courtesy and respect, and created a cool and pragmatic approach to America’s role in the world that has softened the often ideological and inflexible policies of the recent past.

Perhaps most importantly, Obama has taken a shaken nation, deeply disillusioned with government, and helped it believe again that politics is not necessarily a dirty word, that progress can be made, and that government can at least sometimes be trusted. Just as Roosevelt helped create confidence through his “fireside chats” on the radio, Obama has proved to be an exceptional communicator on television, radio, and the Internet.

Effective communication was crucial to Roosevelt, because his first 100 days were important less for their achievements than for the political power they gave him to confront the more daunting tasks that still awaited. Obama, similarly, is going to need all the accumulated goodwill of his first 100 days to address the terrible problems that stand before him: two intractable wars, a continuing financial crisis, the prospect of nuclear enemies, and dangers we don’t even know about yet (like the flu a week ago). The 100 days are over, and the real work is still to come.

Alan Brinkley is provost and Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia.

By Alan Brinkley