The Defining Moment
FDR and Obama are polar opposites in terms of upbringing, the former an East Coast aristocrat and the latter a self-made man from Hawaii among other places. However, both were raised by nurturing mothers and were ultimately schooled at Harvard. Each labored in his own state legislature, but FDR entered office with significantly more experience, serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Wilson years and two terms as Governor of New York. Obama's single truncated term in the U.S. Senate stands as his only foil.
Both men were tested during the course of their respective runs for the presidency on grounds of competence and experience. FDR was seen as an intellectual lightweight, while Obama was portrayed as a political neophyte. In the days the proceeded polling data, many expected Hoover to prevail over FDR, and though Obama held a consistent lead throughout his race against McCain, doubts about undercurrents of racism throughout the electorate called it into question.
Their comfortable margins of victory signified change during trying economic times. True, the current crisis pales in comparison to the Great Depression, but they share a banking collapse, deflation, and unemployment, not to mention severe damage to the national psyche. Obama ran on the mantle of restoring hope in America, and both men embodied this spirit through their unwavering optimism and willingness to engage in "bold, persistent experimentation." FDR was unquestionably successful on this count even though he was unable to reverse the nation's economic fortunes, and early returns suggest the same for Obama.
FDR's flurry of activity in the first 100 days of his presidency was a coincidence in the sense that they coincided exactly with Congress' session and adjournment. It is also important to note that his presidency did not begin until March, allowing him time to assemble his Cabinet and hit the ground running. Obama's January start provided no such luxury, as he was forced to fill out his staff while acting unilaterally on any number of fronts in his initial flurry. According to a site created by NPR to track Obama's first 100 days, he and his administration engaged in 146 separate actions, 39 economic in nature, 59 other domestic issues, and 48 in the realm of foreign policy.
While FDR refused to cooperate with Hoover as the Depression assumed its depths, and the lame duck president engaged in bitter stonewalling of his own, Obama and Bush were both conciliatory and cooperative, passing the presidential baton and managing the initial banking bailout and rescue of the auto industry. FDR did not want to share responsibility for policies that arguably pilloried the nation's economy, and Obama remains in a honeymoon period where our current problems are pinned to his predecessor. It will inevitably prove short lived, especially if his unprecedented increases in deficit spending fail to move the economic needle.
A president's first 100 days is more of a media milestone than a reliable means for us to assess his initial performance in office. The second 100 days is every bit as important, as it is during this period where significant policy changes often ensue. For example, it was during this period that Eisenhower secured an armistice in Korea, and Reagan realized his massive across-the-board income tax cuts. FDR's "Second New Deal" did not take place until 1935 when he signed the Social Security Act among other measures.
Obama is bent on delivering national health insurance, an item that FDR dismissed summarily when he created the aforementioned entitlement program. He is also eager to address climate change and education reform in his first year, and perhaps even immigration. His timetables may conflict with a Congress that is likely to recess for part of the period and begin ramping up for the midterm elections in 2010. Even though his Democratic Party has rock solid majorities on both houses of Congress, their complicity may wane in the wake of the spending splurge that has already occurred. However, I have learned through my observations of Obama's stratospheric rise that his political skills are sharp, his visions boundless, and his successes undeniable.