The concept of the “first hundred days” reduces a large, complex undertaking — the achievements of a president — to a deceptively simple scale.
Franklin D. Roosevelt first used the term on July 24, 1933, to describe the early accomplishments of his administration. In a radio address to the nation, he said it was time to look back at “the crowding events of the hundred days which had been devoted to the starting of the wheels of the New Deal.”
FDR’s accomplishments were impressive. He called the 73rd Congress into session early, and before his first week was over, presented his Emergency Banking Act.
At the time, banks across America were failing at a fearful rate. Fourteen hundred banks had shut their doors in 1932. Before 1933 ended, another 4,000 banks would close. The Emergency Banking Act closed every bank in America for one week, enough time for the public panic to subside. When the banks reopened, Americans began re-depositing their savings.
The Act was only the beginning of Roosevelt’s initiatives over the first 100 days. Before Congress adjourned, the administration also
- took U.S. currency off the gold standard, effectively allowing the government to print and distribute money to the struggling banks
- imposed regulations on U.S. banks that separated commercial banking from investment banking, and prohibited banks from using their assets in stock market speculations
- established an insurance program for bank accounts (the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation)
- introduced new regulation of the stock market (creating the forerunner of the Securities and Exchange Commission)
- created an agency that paid farmers not to raise crops, in order to raise the prices they got for their produce
- launched the Civilian Conservation Corps, which eventually put 250,000 young men to work on conservation projects
- started a program (the Tennessee Valley Authority) to provide electricity to impoverished rural Americans and raise their standard of living
- created a controversial program that placed pricing controls on businesses in an effort to raise the cost of goods
- began the Public Works Administration to create jobs building schools, hospitals, airports, dams, and other public projects
- provided training and direct relief to the unemployed
If it seems impossible for a president to accomplish all this in 100 days, it is. Roosevelt couldn’t have done this on his own, and he knew it. He relied on three other factors.
The first was Congress. Most of the changes came through legislation, not executive orders. Roosevelt knew he could rely on the support of other Democrats who made up the majority in both houses. (The 73rd Congress had 311 Democrat, 117 Republican, and 5 Farmer-Labor representatives in the House; and 59 Democratic and 36 Republican senators, plus one from the Farm-Labor Party.)
Second, there was a national sense of urgency. One in five Americans was out of work. Employed Americans feared their job or savings might disappear overnight. Congressmen knew they had to act, even to try unconventional means. Southern Democrats sometimes objected to Roosevelt’s program, but progressive Republicans from western states stepped in to throw their support behind the president.
Third, Roosevelt had strong support from the American public, which had just elected him by 472 electoral votes to President Hoover’s 59. (Hoover lost the popular vote in 1932 by the same sizeable percentage he’d won it in 1928: 17%.) They had voted for, and would support, any new measures.
Other presidents haven’t had those advantages. When President Johnson entered the White House, he enjoyed a honeymoon phase with the press and the public. It enabled him to push the Civil Rights Bill, which had been hung up in Congress. He introduced a wide range of bills, hoping to beat Roosevelt’s record, but he failed.
President Reagan’s first 100 days got off to a promising start when 52 Americans being held hostage in Iran were released on the same day he took office. He also proposed $41 billion in budget cuts and major tax breaks during his first three months. President Obama took action on an ambitious number of foreign and domestic issues, including a $700 billion stimulus bill, but he still fell short of FDR’s record of change.
Roosevelt still holds the record for accomplishment in his first 100 days in terms of major legislation passed, but considering that it took a financial disaster and a desperate sense of national urgency to achieve so much, perhaps it’s just as well we never see his record beaten.