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Were Biden’s first Hundred Days anything like FDR’s?

If You Ask Me

There has been talk about how President Biden’s ambitious legislative program — trillions for infrastructure, education, immigration reform, climate control — is reminiscent of the incredible first Hundred Days of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. But is there really any comparison?

No.  Roosevelt’s remarkable achievements during his first three months as president in 1933 were real; Biden’s were mostly aspirational.
To be fair, the architect of the historic New Deal legislation had a distinct advantage. He enjoyed a comfortable majority in both Houses of Congress while Biden has struggled with a single digit majority in the House and a virtual tie in the Senate that gives a conservative West Virginia Democrat near-veto power over some of the president’s hopes and dreams.

Biden’s times are hard; Roosevelt’s were worse. Between his election in November 1932 and the inauguration three months later, on March 4, 1933, the Great Depression had hit what would be its lowest point.  Unemployment reached 20% and half of the country’s banks had failed after depositors ran on them to withdraw their money.  Many states had temporarily closed their surviving banks.  

And so, the day after his inauguration, Roosevelt declared a four-day bank holiday to keep banks closed until Congress could act, which Congress did four days later with the passage of the Emergency Banking Act, closing every bank in the nation while insuring deposits. This legislation enjoyed rare Republican support but not Democratic unanimity as some party liberals wanted to nationalize the banks.

The next day, the new president did something rarely repeated in what has been nearly a century — he cut spending to erase a billion-dollar deficit inherited from the Hoover administration. The cuts included sacred cows like veterans’ pensions and a 15% slash in  government employee salaries.  (There were no public employee unions then and the otherwise pro-labor president rightly thought government couldn’t have workers negotiate wages and working conditions with the people they elected.)

March ended with the passage of an act establishing the Civilian Conservation Corps, putting hundreds of thousands of unskilled, jobless young men in CCC camps to work on conservation projects across the country.

April was quiet, but Hundred Days laws passed in May included the Agriculture Adjustment, Federal Emergency Relief and Tennessee Valley Authority Acts.

The controversial AAA was aimed at keeping farm prices up by paying farmers not to grow certain crops or raise certain livestock. The Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional in Roosevelt’s second term, which prompted him to try to pack the Court by adding a justice for every sitting member over 70.  It was aimed at the “Nine Old Men,” conservative holdovers from three previous Republican administrations.  The packing bill was widely opposed and easily defeated by the Congress’ Republicans and Southern Democrats.

The FERA was aimed at putting more unemployed to work and preceded the Works Progress Act of 1934, which created the famous or infamous WPA, depending on your politics. (Around 1939 or thereabouts, a joke going around my Republican neighborhood explained the New Deal in this manner: “In the Old Testament, Moses told the Israelites, ‘Pack up your camels and mount your asses, we’re heading for the Promised Land.’  In 1939, FDR said, ‘Light up a Camel and sit on your asses. This is the Promised Land.’”) 

Roosevelt had, of course, just begun his revolution with the unmatchable achievements of those first days. From Social Security in 1935 to the GI Bill of Rights, not long before he died in office in 1945, Roosevelt would change American society forever while, not incidentally, leading the nation to victory in the greatest war in its history.

Neither Biden nor any “transformative” president is likely to approach anything like the New Deal. This includes Lyndon B. Johnson, who achieved much with his Great Society and War on Poverty, mostly after he was elected to his single term in a landslide over Barry Goldwater.

But by the time he decided not to seek a second term in 1968, Johnson’s domestic reforms were overshadowed by his continued support for the Vietnam War.  Nevertheless,  his Great Society gave us the monumental Medicare and Medicaid, a  more sweeping 1965 Voting Rights Act, a Clean Air act, several programs aimed at raising people out of poverty, increases in federal education aid and an end to restrictive immigration.

Biden now faces a second and third Hundred Days, leading up to the 2022 off-year election campaign, which will decide what happens to the remainder of his first, and maybe, his only, term.

Axios, the popular news website, predicts this period will be more “audacious and risky” for Biden as he tries “to re-engineer the very fundamentals of America — inequality, voting rights and government’s role in directing economic growth.”

Finally, in case you’re wondering:  During the presidential election campaign he won, Donald Trump promised his first Hundred Days would see repeal of Obamacare, the completion of the wall along the Mexican border  paid for by Mexico and the passage of term limits for members of Congress.

 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.

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