Professor of Political Science and Peter S. Kalikow Chair in Presidential Studies
The historic election of Barack Obama to the White House on November 4, 2008, raised the possibility of a presidency comparable at the outset to the exceptional early days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR). Both men took ofﬁce at a time of economic crisis for the United States, albeit much greater in scale in the early 1930s during the Great Depression. Both FDR and Obama were elected with healthy party majorities in both chambers of Congress, and both quickly developed ambitious policy agendas. Two weeks after Obama’s victory, Time magazine published a cover photo of the president-elect as a modern-day FDR (seated at the wheel of a 1930s-style automobile with glasses and a cigarette holder), with the title “The New New Deal: What Barack Obama Can Learn from F.D.R. – and What the Democrats Need to Do.” 2
This article compares Obama’s early leadership with FDR’s, focusing on their respective political systems, public communications, and policy enactments. Differences between the two presidents, as well as their political circumstances, point to the need for caution in such an assessment. The ﬁnancial system was in such disarray when FDR took ofﬁce that many Americans questioned whether democracy would endure, paving the way for strong executive leadership and governmental action. The accomplishments of FDR’s whirlwind ﬁrst hundred days in 1933 established a benchmark that his successors have tried to approximate, all the while recognizing that it will not be attained. (A recent analysis of modern presidential leadership in the ﬁ rst 100 days of an administration ﬁ nds that “Presidents live inescapably in FDR’s shadow.” 3) Nevertheless, while he did not achieve (or aspire to achieve) the major policy enactments of FDR’s ﬁ rst hundred days, Obama demonstrated a solid start to his presidency during his ﬁrst three months in ofﬁce by following through on campaign promises in his public communications and policy agenda.
Understanding the Political Context
Comparing the election results and economic indicators in 1932 and 2008 illustrates the contextual constraints and opportunities that FDR and Obama faced upon taking ofﬁce. The 1932 presidential race is viewed as a realigning election – that is, one in which a longtime coalition of voters made a signiﬁcant and enduring shift in party afﬁliation, in this case from Republican to Democrat.4 This electoral realignment took place in legislative races as well, giving the president an opportunity to lead with his party in control of both chambers of Congress. Obama also entered ofﬁce with a majority of the popular vote and a solid Democratic majority in Congress, but weakening party ties as well as political circumstances complicated his efforts to exercise vigorous leadership at the outset.
FDR overwhelmingly defeated his opponent, incumbent President Herbert Hoover, in the 1932 election, winning 42 states and 472 votes in the Electoral College, compared to just six states and 59 electoral votes for Hoover. FDR also won 57 percent of the popular vote, with about seven million more ballots than Hoover, and he was the ﬁ rst Democrat since Franklin Pierce in 1852 to win a majority of the popular vote.5The Democrats fared exceptionally well in Congress, too, winning nearly 100 seats in the House, to cement their control there, and a dozen seats in the Senate, resulting in a majority in that chamber as well.6
The severity of the Great Depression also propelled FDR into a leadership role from the start of his presidency. Approximately one-quarter of the work force was unemployed when he took ofﬁce; two years earlier, nearly 100,000 Americans had responded to an advertisement for employment in the Soviet Union.7 The stock market had dropped 75 percent since 1929, banks had closed in most states, and the New York Stock Exchange halted trading in securities just hours before FDR’s inauguration on March 4, 1933.8 The president, Congress, and the American public were well aware that the conditions were ripe for executive action.
Like FDR, Obama won election with a majority of the popular vote, 53 percent, with about 12 million more ballots than his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona. Obama also won a clear victory in the Electoral College, with 365 votes to 173 for McCain, though in number of states, the two were not far apart, with 28 for Obama and 22 for McCain. In addition to winning the White House, the Democrats also kept control of Congress, winning 24 more seats in the House and eight more seats in the Senate (plus an additional seat with Senator Arlen Specter’s switch to the Democratic Party in spring 2009).9
The economic situation in late 2008 was not nearly as dire as in 1932, but it did prompt momentum for executive leadership and action. Unemployment rose from about 5 percent at the start of the recession in December 2007 to more than 7.5 percent in January 2009 (and nearly doubled from late 2007 to almost 10 percent by the fall).10 Between October 2007 and October 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined in value by nearly 50 percent, dipping from a high above 14,000 to under 8,000.11 Failures of major ﬁnancial institutions such as Lehman Brothers and the need for a government bailout package to assist troubled banks further heightened concerns about the nation’s long-term ﬁ nancial health.
Communicating Policy Initiatives
In addressing the American public in a time of crisis, both FDR and Obama rank highly among American presidents for their communication skills. FDR excelled at inspiring conﬁ dence, exuding energy, and explaining policies clearly and concisely. Obama came to national attention because of his ability to inspire, when he delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. While his presidential rhetoric has not achieved the renown of his earlier speeches (such as the March 2008 speech on race in Philadelphia), Obama has identiﬁ ed his policy priorities consistently and forcefully. A key difference in the two presidents’ public communications is FDR’s willingness to propose expanded executive power to achieve goals, a proposal that likely would not be well-received today.
FDR’s ﬁrst inaugural address surely ranks among the top 10 great speeches by U.S. presidents in the 20th century. At a time when many Americans were questioning the nation’s very survival, the new president began his ﬁ rst speech to the country with the optimistic and ringing declaration that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”12 After asserting his faith in the strength of the American republic, FDR excoriated the group he deemed most responsible for the crisis, the ﬁ nancial community, with his warning that “The money changers have ﬂed from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths.”13
While both of these statements are referenced frequently, the section of the speech that garnered the most applause at the time is less well known. Toward the end of his address, FDR said he would seek enactment of legislation to combat the economic crisis. But if Congress did not comply, FDR promised that he would not hesitate to ask for “broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency as great as the power that would be given me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”14 The president’s willingness to suggest this possibility, and the crowd’s enthusiastic response, indicates a trust in presidential leadership to pursue the national interest that is far less evident today.
To communicate his policy objectives, FDR used both formal speeches and informal conversations with the American public known as his famous “ﬁreside chats.” While he used this technique sparingly – about 30 times in 12 years – he did so twice during his ﬁrst hundred days in ofﬁce. In his ﬁ rst ﬁreside chat, delivered just eight days into his presidency in 1933, FDR explained why he had ordered a national bank holiday, saying “this was the ﬁrst step in the Government’s reconstruction of our ﬁ nancial and economic fabric.”15 He went on to praise Congress for passing legislation “promptly and patriotically” 16 to facilitate the reopening of the banks, explicitly recognizing Democrats and Republicans for their bipartisan governance.
A few weeks later, FDR gave a second address on his New Deal programs, beginning with the poignant statement that “Two months ago we were facing serious problems. The country was dying by inches.”17 He then explained recently adopted policies, and he explicitly noted that Congress had given the president authority to pursue certain objectives. The president assured the public that this was “constitutional and in keeping with the past American tradition.”18 In each of his early public communications, FDR succeeded in building support for his policies through clarity and simplicity of language as well as justiﬁ cation of executive authority.
Like FDR, Obama is a gifted orator whose speeches have contributed to his political success. Indeed, Obama’s rise to the presidency began with the keynote address that he delivered at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in which he emphasized the values that unite Americans and cross partisan and racial/ethnic identities.19 At the time he gave this speech, Obama was a state senator running for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois – that a state legislator could become a national ﬁgure based in large measure on a compelling speech illustrates the power of his words. Unlike FDR, though, Obama is not a speaker who excels at short, memorable snippets; his ideas typically take longer to present and are thus difﬁ cult to excerpt concisely. Nevertheless, Obama’s clarity of expression parallels FDR’s, and while the current president’s speeches do not contain FDR-style pithy lines (which also are the hallmark of speeches from other noted presidential communicators such as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan), they do illustrate a consistent political vision that has guided his early policy making.
In his presidential campaign, the speech that put his Democratic opponents on notice about the seriousness of his candidacy was Obama’s address at the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner in November 2007. Speaking toward the end of a long evening, Obama invigorated the crowd of Democratic activists with his blunt statement that the United States was at a crossroads. As he put it: We are in a deﬁning moment in our history. Our nation is at war. The planet is in peril. The dream that so many generations fought for feels as if it’s slowly slipping away. We are working harder for less. We’ve never paid more for health care or for college. It’s harder to save and it’s harder to retire. And most of all we’ve lost faith that our leaders can or will do anything about it. I am running in this race because of what Dr. King called ‘the ﬁerce urgency of now.’ Because I believe that there’s such a thing as being too late. And that hour is almost upon us.20 Obama identiﬁed his policy priorities – foreign affairs, environmental policy, economic strength, health care, education – and made clear why he was in this race, despite his limited national political experience. His victory one year later represented (at least partly) public support for this agenda and for changing the American political process.
In his inaugural address, Obama began with the same conﬁdence as FDR, stating that “The challenges we face are real. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met.” 21 He promised to rework Washington politics and end “the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.” 22 While he gave a muted critique of his predecessor, saying, “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” 23 he did not dwell on political differences, focusing instead on how Americans should enter “a new era of responsibility.” 24
In his ﬁrst address to Congress the following month, Obama similarly spread criticism for the nation’s economic crisis broadly, identifying weaknesses in both the government and the American people. As he explained, “The fact is, our economy did not fall into decline overnight. And though all these challenges went unsolved, we still managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our government, than ever before.” 25 He went on to say, “that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here.” 26 Consistent with his previous speeches, Obama declared that strengthening the economy required a commitment to “jumpstart job creation, re-start lending, and invest in areas like energy, health care, and education that will grow our economy, even as we make hard choices to bring our deﬁ cit down.” 27 Just as FDR’s public narrative emphasized both immediate and long-term priorities (and spending) to preserve the American republic, so, too, has Obama endorsed quick action along with large-scale reforms for continued prosperity.
Turning Promises Into Policies
The ambitious programs that FDR and Obama proposed in their early rhetoric were by no means assured of speedy enactment and implementation. While FDR’s legislative successes in his ﬁ rst hundred days were important, many of his more lasting achievements, such as Social Security, were created later in his administration. The political environment that President Obama must navigate is far more complex than FDR’s, particularly given the constant scrutiny that the 24-hour news cycle imposes on the president today, making the 100-day benchmark for comparison seem premature. Still, an evaluation of how Obama’s ﬁrst hundred days stand up to FDR’s presents some indicators of the strengths and challenges of the current administration.
When the special session of the 73rd Congress concluded in mid-June 1933, FDR’s legislative accomplishments included more than a dozen major initiatives. Among the programs and agencies created were the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed approximately 250,000 young men in public works projects, primarily to promote conservation of natural resources; the Tennessee Valley Authority, which brought electricity, ﬂood control, and other modernization measures to seven southern states; and the Federal Insurance Deposit Corporation, which guaranteed bank deposits up to a certain amount.28 Parts of some laws, such as the National Industrial Recovery Act, were later overturned by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, and some scholars have questioned whether the Hundred Days enactments were effective in combating the Great Depression.29
While the cumulative effect of these programs may be difﬁcult to pinpoint deﬁnitively, FDR’s vigor and conﬁ dence in promoting them clearly boosted public morale and established the foundation for an activist federal government in both economic and social policy.
The White House Web site lists seven laws signed by President Obama in his ﬁrst hundred days in ofﬁce, about half the number signed by FDR in the same period.30 Among the laws passed are the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which expands the time period for people to ﬁght pay discrimination in court; the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, popularly known as the stimulus package, which provided nearly $800 billion in federal funds to promote economic recovery; and the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act, which increases protections for credit card holders. While the Obama administration’s major initiatives, such as health care reform, are still under negotiation, the ﬁrst hundred days illustrate steady, incremental progress toward clearly established goals.31
The ﬁrst hundred days of FDR’s presidency marked the onset of a greatly expanded role for the federal government in public affairs, with increased responsibilities in ﬁ nancial regulation, care for the poor and elderly, workers’ rights, education, and many other areas. In 2009 the size of the federal government is a common conservative rallying cry, but returning to the pre-FDR era would be virtually impossible. As Obama said in his inaugural address, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” 32 A full appraisal of Obama’s ﬁrst hundred days, then, depends upon the longer-term consequences of his early policies.33 For now, the Obama presidency has communicated its plans clearly, followed through on campaign promises, and steadfastly pursued its policy priorities. Given public expectations and political realities, those accomplishments are signiﬁ cant – though they will matter little if those plans and priorities do not become policy.
- This article is based in part on the Distinguished Faculty Lecture that I gave at Hofstra on April 29, 2009 (the 100th day of the Obama administration), titled “Looking for Change: Evaluating the Early Leadership of the Obama Administration.” It also draws upon an Elderhostel course that I developed and taught at the FDR Library in Hyde Park, New York, titled “Another Hundred Days in American Politics? An Early Appraisal of the Obama Administration.” My thanks to the audiences at both lectures for their helpful comments and questions.
- Peter Beinart, “The New New Deal – What Barack Obama Can Learn from F.D.R. – And What the Democrats Need to Do,” Time, November 24, 2008. On the cover, the ﬁ rst “New” is in red, with the rest of the title in white, and italics are used here to note the difference. Article available at http://www. time.com/time/covers/0,16641,20081124,00. html.
- Terry Sullivan, “Presidential Work During the First Hundred Days: Distinctiveness, Engagement, Operations, and Effectiveness,” White House Transition Project Reports #2009-04, 2008, p. 5. Full report available at http://whitehousetransitionproject.org. For an analysis of how FDR’s “Hundred Days” legislation compares to other presidents’ early leadership, see John Frendreis, Raymond Tatalovich, and Jon Schaff, “Predicting Legislative Output in the First One-Hundred Days, 1897-1995,” Political Research Quarterly 54, no. 4 (December 2001): 853-870.
- For a discussion of political realignments in American politics, see James L. Sundquist, Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1983).
- Jonathan Alter, The Deﬁning Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 134.
- Election data for the presidential race is available in Joseph Nathan Kane, Presidential Fact Book (New York: Random House, 1998). For congressional election results, see the U.S. House of Representatives’ Ofﬁce of the Clerk Web site at http://clerk.house.gov/ art_history/house_history/partyDiv.html, and the U.S. Senate Web site at http://www. senate.gov/pagelayout/history/one_item_ and_teasers/partydiv.html.
- Henry F. Graff, ed., The Presidents: A Reference History, 2d ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1996), 425-28.
- Alter, The Deﬁning Moment, 148, 203, 212.
- Congressional results for 2008 are in the Web sites cited in note 6. The 2008 presidential election results are available through The New York Times Web site at http://elections. nytimes.com/2008/results/president/map.html.
- U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics News Release USDL 09-1180, “The Employment Situation – September 2009,” October 2, 2009. Available at http://www.bls. gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf.
- Historical information on the Dow Jones Industrial Average is available at http:// ﬁnance.yahoo.com/q/hp?s=^DJI&a=09&b=1 1&c=2007&d=09&e=10&f=2008&g=w
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933. Available at http:// www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/fdrirstinaugural.html.
- Ibid. On public applause for this statement, see Alter, The Deﬁning Moment, 218-19.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, “On the Bank Crisis,” March 12, 1933. Available at http://docsfdrlibrary.marist.edu/ﬁ resi90.html.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Outlining the New Deal Program,” May 7, 1933. Available at http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/ﬁ resi90 html.
- Barack Obama, “2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address,” Boston, July 27, 2004. Available at http://www. americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ convention2004/barackobama2004dnc.htm.
- Remarks of Senator Barack Obama, Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, November 10, 2007. http://www.barackobama.com/2007/11/10/remarks_of_senator_ barack_obam_33.php.
- Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/20/us/politics/20text-obama html.
- Remarks of President Barack Obama, Address to joint session of Congress, February 24, 2009. Available at http://www. whitehouse.gov/the_press_ofﬁ ce/remarks-of•president-barack-obama-address-to-joint•session-of-congress/.
- Details on FDR’s Hundred Days initiatives are in Alter, The Deﬁning Moment. Also see http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma02/volpe/ newdeal/hundred_days.html.
- See, for example, Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008).
- See the White House Web site at http://www.whitehouse.gov/.
- President Obama made clear his determination to enact health care reform this year with a second prime-time address to a joint session of Congress on September 9, 2009. In some respects, the speech evoked John F. Kennedy’s second address to Congress in 1961, in which he called for sending a man to the moon by the end of the decade. See Meena Bose, “Legislative Skills Make the Legacy,” Newsday, September 11, 2009.
- Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009. Available at http://www. nytimes.com/2009/01/20/us/politics/20text•obama.html.
- An editorial in the Wall Street Journal on President Obama’s hundredth day in ofﬁ ce viewed the long-term prospects for his policies skeptically. As it stated, “Mr. Obama is more popular than his policies. For now, we are living in another era of unchecked liberal government. The reckoning will come when Americans discover how much it costs.” See Editorial, “The Liberal Hour,” Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2009.