Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


The Defining Moment

By Shawn Healy
In preparation for the Freedom Museum's Obama 100 Days program last Thursday, I paged through Jonathan Alter's 2006 tome, The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. The parallels between FDR and President Obama are inevitable, and this book brought many to light. Analysis of Obama's first 100 days in office borders on overkill, so I will instead lean on history, and Alter's spectacular work, to take this pontificating in a new direction.

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.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at