The Most Vital 100 Days Since FDR
Just like Roosevelt, Biden must show that government still works.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
Did any U.S. president ever have a more ominous first hundred days? Fearing assassination, he slunk into Washington under the cover of night, in disguise, and registered without public notice at a hotel near the White House. No sooner had he taken the oath of office than he began to violate it, suspending habeas corpus and arresting dissidents without trial. Meanwhile, no matter what he tried, the nation literally fell apart around him.
Yet that president, Abraham Lincoln, is today considered one of America’s greatest—the greatest in the eyes of many historians. That in turn suggests that the first hundred days metric is hardly an accurate measure of presidential success. First used by Franklin D. Roosevelt three score and eight years after Lincoln’s death—when FDR rushed through emergency legislation in record time to defeat the Great Depression—many historians today disdain it as largely a media contrivance designed to conjure headlines.
But neither can we dismiss the hundred days standard entirely, especially now, with Joe Biden replacing Donald Trump at a time of multiple crises: a pandemic that has cost more than half a million American lives, a rolling cataclysm of natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, an economy still bleeding millions of jobs, and a foreign policy that remains inchoate and aimless as America’s global leadership is in doubt.
A number of prominent historians and political scientists who study the presidency suggest that this period is different: that Biden’s first hundred days have mattered a great deal, perhaps as much as Roosevelt’s did in fighting the Depression. (FDR coined the term in July 1933, when he gave a radio address reflecting on “the crowding events of the hundred days which had been devoted to the starting of the wheels of the New Deal.”) What the two share in common is the urgent need to show the American people and the world that, amid turmoil accompanied by widespread disillusionment with Washington, government can still work at the most fundamental level.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a president since Roosevelt who’s had a more important first hundred days,” said Sidney Milkis, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia. Milkis had in mind Biden’s many executive orders reversing Trump’s policies and his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, but he added that these actions also take place in a nation arguably “more divided now culturally, regionally, and on matters of American identity—who we are—than we have been since Lincoln and the Civil War.” In a way, Milkis said, Biden faces a more treacherous situation than Roosevelt: “There was no insurrection at the Capitol during Roosevelt’s tenure, and few people questioned whether he was the legitimate president.”
Sean Wilentz of Princeton University also pointed to Trump’s trampling of the U.S. Constitution and postwar global system. “The whole status of the executive branch is in shambles, and you need to rebuild that quickly,” he said. “Most salient is the mistrust in the Justice Department, given the events of Jan. 6 at the Capitol. No modern president has inherited this kind of situation institutionally.”
Against these high stakes, the consensus among nearly a dozen presidential experts interviewed for this article is that Biden’s first hundred days have been mostly successful, even as he has failed to bridge the partisan gap left over from the bitterly divisive Trump years. Starting on his first day in office, Biden signed at least 50 executive orders, about half of them reversing Trump policies, including his withdrawal from the Paris climate pact, immigration policies, border wall construction, and the travel ban targeting Muslims. “I’m not making new law. I’m eliminating bad policy,” the new president said bluntly. (In fact, in his first two weeks in office, Biden signed nearly as many executive orders as Roosevelt—who still holds the record—signed in his entire first month.)
Then, on March 11, Biden signed into law the giant COVID-19 relief package, passed on party-line votes in the House and Senate. It was perhaps the biggest job creation and anti-poverty program since the New Deal. His administration has also dramatically expedited the distribution of vaccines and announced a $2.3 trillion infrastructure rebuilding agenda that the 46th president deftly called the “American Jobs Plan.” As Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in late February, “Now is the time to be aggressive.” At his first news conference, on March 25, Biden himself invoked the hundred days standard, vowing “200 million [vaccine] shots in 100 days.”
This frenzy of activity echoes FDR’s as he sought to reverse the laissez-faire approach of his own predecessor, Herbert Hoover, to the Great Depression. Richard Immerman, a presidential scholar at Temple University and former senior intelligence official under President George W. Bush, pointed out that both men also installed a “brain trust” of experts—for Biden, “a team that may be unparalleled in terms of their experience.” Despite a slow start in getting cabinet nominees confirmed—thanks in part to the impeachment trial of Trump in January and the former president’s refusal to concede and take part in a transition—Biden managed to install a series of longtime respected professionals to top posts. They include Lloyd Austin for defense secretary, Antony Blinken as secretary of state, and Janet Yellen as treasury secretary. Biden pledged that his attorney general, Merrick Garland, would be the nation’s lawyer, not the president’s, as Trump appeared to believe.
Most of all, experts agreed that the sense of urgency to fix the system is what most likens Biden to FDR. “There are so many crises: the pandemic, an economy that in many ways will have fundamentally changed during it—and of course global warming, an existential crisis … which the previous administration did nothing about,” said Joseph Ellis, another well-known presidential historian. “Biden is doing the right thing by identifying those crises.”
Despite Biden’s parallels to one of America’s greatest presidents, it takes far longer than a hundred days for any consensus on presidential success to form. Biden’s foreign policy, for example, has barely gotten off the ground, despite urgent issues such as Iran’s nuclear program and ending the “forever wars,” as he has pledged to do. Trying to reverse Trump’s immigration restrictions, he also faces a new crisis involving a surge of migrants at the southern U.S. border.
But Biden must confront structural, social, and political challenges that many presidents before him did not. Two decades ago, the great presidential historian Richard Neustadt famously denigrated the hundred days standard as bad history, arguing that FDR’s tenure was the exception because of the gravity of the crisis he faced, the incompetence of his predecessor to address it, and—crucially—his total control of Congress. FDR enjoyed large majorities in both legislative bodies and called Congress into emergency session until June 1933. Consequently, in the three months following his inauguration on March 4, 1933, Roosevelt was able to ram 15 major bills through a compliant Congress, including the Emergency Banking Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, and legislation creating the Tennessee Valley Authority, Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and Civilian Conservation Corps. The humorist Will Rogers joked at the time: “They are passing bills so fast [in Washington] they don’t even vote on them; they just wave at them as they go by.” By contrast, Biden’s Democratic Party has a thin margin in the House and a 50-50 split in the Senate.
Other well-regarded presidents had slow starts, including John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. “At some level, the hundred days is an important notation in the sense that you’re seeing the president’s initial leadership style,” said Lara Brown, a political scientist at the George Washington University. “But in terms of actual performance—is this person going to be successful or not—I think it’s tremendously shortsighted. I would argue that for most presidents in the modern era, the first hundred days is the beginning, not the end, of their stories.”
That’s true even of Roosevelt. His 15-bill onslaught in the first hundred days did much to bring the republic back from the brink of ruin, but his most important achievements didn’t come until later. The key surviving elements of the New Deal emerged only in the middle of his first term. The Social Security Act of 1935, for example, was part of FDR’s extraordinary “second hundred days.” What was actually a total of 177 days in 1935 also included legislation strengthening the Federal Reserve Board; the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration; and the Wagner Act establishing the National Labor Relations Board. Those fundamental reforms changed U.S. capitalism forever.
Like Biden, FDR faced continuing challenges from populist forces well after his first hundred days. Populism, of any strain, is often a response to the perceived failures of the establishment, and Roosevelt faced skepticism about his sweeping policies. Even after his titanic success with the New Deal, FDR met with recalcitrance from the Supreme Court. This led to his disastrous court-packing plan, a forerunner of what progressives are urging Biden to do in response to Trump’s three conservative appointments. Roosevelt also faced a populist challenge from a bloc led by fascist voices including the anti-Semitic Rev. Charles Coughlin and, most threateningly, Sen. Huey Long, the demagogic “Kingfish of Louisiana.”
FDR evaded the fascistic threat when Long was assassinated in 1935 at the height of his power and influence. But Long’s “Share Our Wealth” program (which restricted annual income to $1.8 million and guaranteed no less than $2,000 per adult) was enormously popular, and, had he lived, historians believe he might have mounted a serious challenge to Roosevelt in the 1936 election.
Biden could well face his own populist resistance ahead of the midterms in 2022. And, at 78, it’s not clear he’ll serve long enough to enact lasting change. Thus the gravest danger is that at a time of what seems permanent polarization, “the first hundred days has become merely a period of demonstrating that you’re repudiating the previous administration,” said Julia Azari, a presidential historian at Marquette University.
This has become especially true in foreign policy following the breakdown of the postwar and Cold War consensus on America’s role in the world. In the three most recent presidencies, Bush repudiated what Bill Clinton did, inveighing against “nation building” (at least until he invaded Iraq); Barack Obama in turn sought to reverse what Bush did (calling Iraq a “dumb” war); and Trump tried to destroy Obama’s legacy, in particular the Paris climate pact, his nuclear agreement with Iran, and his trade agenda.
“Especially in a time of polarization, if you try to hit the ground running with a fast start, you’re going to do more to help your opponents to unify than not,” Brown said. That appeared to be the case with Biden’s relief plan. Despite the president’s numerous attempts to reach out to Republicans—whom he courted for 36 years as a senator—not one voted for his plan.
And this may be the most unsettling dimension to the hundred days framework: Because so many modern presidents hew to it, it sends a message of dysfunction and unsteadiness to the rest of the world, with the very idea of U.S. leadership kicked back and forth, term after term, like a wayward football.
Things weren’t always this way. For most of U.S. history, no one made much of the beginning months of presidential terms; in the 19th century, very few presidents even exercised their veto power. “Presidents were measured in the 18th and 19th centuries the same way: The Constitution presumed the initiative would be taken by Congress, and Congress was usually gone for six months at a time,” said H.W. Brands, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin. “Over time, presidents would slowly come to recommend things to Congress.”
President Zachary Taylor, for example, spent the first months of his brief term in 1849 traveling around the newly expanding country. He and his successors until Lincoln mostly equivocated on big issues and deferred to Congress while it fought over the spread of slavery—ultimately leading to the Civil War.
Hence, few 19th-century presidents are remembered for their achievements—neither in their first hundred days nor even during their entire terms. The nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, was an exception in large part because his Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the new country.
So, too, was James Monroe, who established hemispheric U.S. dominance as a principle, and Andrew Jackson, who aggressively asserted presidential power by opposing a national bank and forcing the migration of Native Americans but ended up wrecking the economy with the Panic of 1837. Perhaps the only other highly regarded president from that period was James Polk, who successfully expanded U.S. territory to the Far West.
That limited concept of presidential power changed for good in the 20th century with Theodore Roosevelt, who took office in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley. Roosevelt was the first, Brands said, “to hit the ground running. He didn’t wait for Congress. He took executive action by launching antitrust actions and sent the message that his would be an activist administration.” Presidents, he added, “have been held to that standard ever since.”
Some presidents have sought to warn the public against rushing to judgment; most famously, perhaps, Kennedy in his inaugural address told Americans that his New Frontier would “not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
For some presidents, playing up their first hundred days is good publicity. In his 1993 inaugural address, Clinton—an admirer of FDR—sought to invoke the Rooseveltian standard even if it didn’t particularly apply to his times. “Let us resolve to make our government a place for what Franklin Roosevelt called ‘bold, persistent experimentation,’” he said, though all Clinton faced was a mild recession. Even Trump at first tried to put out what his campaign called a “game-changing plan for his first 100 days in office.” But nearing the end of his self-
imposed benchmark, he repudiated it on Twitter.
Yet now America’s very system of governance has been called into question in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Great Depression. And first impressions—those first hundred days—matter once again. For Biden to win popular support, the key is to make clear to the American public that his administration is mounting crisis responses, not new ideological standards or existential threats to the very system—and to sell them that way. Obama, for example, failed to explain that he was acting mainly to save the economy from collapse, by most accounts, loading up his 2009 stimulus plan with progressive ideas such as new green technologies and pushing for health care reform even as the Great Recession raged on. Most of all, Obama failed to sell his plan as a major crisis response, setting him up for a big backlash in his first midterms in 2010.
So far, the more experienced Biden has avoided this path, saying flatly that he’s going all out to publicize his economic rescue package. “I kept saying [to Obama], ‘Tell people what we did,’” Biden recalled at an event in March, referring to his advice when he was vice president in 2009. “He said, ‘We don’t have time. I’m not going to take a victory lap.’ And we paid a price for it, ironically, for that humility.”
What matters about Biden in the end may not be what he accomplishes by his hundred-day mark but what his stature will be going into the 2022 midterms. According to Brown, that and Biden’s third-year agenda will likely provide the best assessment of his presidency—and whether he can win reelection in 2024. Perhaps no one knows this better than Biden, with his long legislative experience in the Senate. For example, he gave in easily when his $15 minimum wage demand was separated from the COVID-19 relief bill, saying he would work with Republicans on future legislation.
“At the end of the day, the third year is the year presidents must figure out what their election is going to be about. That is their year to position or pivot,” Brown said. “The first hundred days are meaningful in that it is when typically the public gives the president the benefit of the doubt. But overall you’re better off kind of going slow, trying to co-opt your opposition.”
But Biden, the oldest U.S. president ever to take office amid some of the nation’s worst crises, may not feel he has that luxury.
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh