It is not just U.S. President Donald Trump who is being held to the standard that was set by the aggressive actions of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the opening phase of his first term in 1933. As has been true for every President since Roosevelt who has been measured by that standard (which did not exist until the first Roosevelt administration), it is a significantly unfair comparison by any measure. The first of which is the nature of the crisis at the beginning of Roosevelt’s first of four terms, and secondly the composition of the U.S. Congress, which he had to support the implementation of his plans.
This is important due to much being made of what President Trump has accomplished in his first 100 days by this Saturday. Given how highly litigious U.S. society has become, it is important to keep in mind that some of Roosevelt’s ultimately successful actions were even deemed illegal after the fact. The implementation of those might have easily been blocked (or at least delayed) by injunctions or other pre-emptory legal processes today.
Roosevelt’s great accomplishments
This is not to take anything away from the Brobdingnagian challenge Roosevelt faced in lifting the U.S. economy out of the Great Depression. Ultimately, both the U.S. and global economy were much better for it. Still, he had certain advantages in the sheer complexion of the Congress which aided and abetted his agenda. Neither John F. Kennedy nor Ronald Reagan nor Barack Obama and not even Donald Trump enjoyed the legislative leverage which was afforded the first Roosevelt administration. The sort of unified Democratic Party control of the 73rd Congress of the United States was a key element of his success.
The very successful Reagan administration began with many fewer Republican House and Senate seats (more below), and even Barack Obama only came close to Roosevelt’s Senate percentage with far fewer seats in the House. As such, some consideration of that Hundred Days metric is therefore in order.
Not even Roosevelt hit this target
Incredibly Roosevelt was not even referring to his own first 100 days in office after his inauguration. The term was coined in his July 24, 1933 radio address referring to the 100-day session of the 73rd United States Congress between March 9th and June 17th. As such, it was a rather broader berth than the 100 days immediately after inaugurations applied to all subsequent U.S. Presidents. We are certain they would have all loved to have had this metric for their accomplishments out into mid-June.
This is especially due to the lack of major (even though there have been many minor) legislative achievements in Trump’s tenure into day 100 this coming Saturday. In that he is very similar to his predecessors since Roosevelt outside of the major emergency economic stimulus package passed by the Obama administration through both houses of Congress within the first 30 days. Still, this was seen as a critical measure in early 2009, akin to the U.S. economic needs when Roosevelt took office; even if it was criticized by some as being poorly designed (more handouts to key constituencies than real stimulus.)
The Congressional advantage
The 73rd Congress of the United States was so lopsided to the liberal Democrat side that Roosevelt and his colleagues never really had to ask for any Republican participation on his major early administration programs. They controlled around 60% of a Senate, which still had only 96 members (Alaska and Hawaii were not admitted to the Union until 1959.) Sixty Senators was a numeric total touched at times by Barack Obama’s 100 seat Senate, but that was still less as a percentage which could clearly dominate the chamber.
Roosevelt’s Democrats also controlled 70%(+/-) of the House of Representatives, with a floating total in 1933-1935 of between 307 and 313 of its 430 seats. This was a good thing, as there were fairly significant political and legal reservations about Roosevelt’s program among Republican business and financial leaders. Yet, the Democrats did not need to worry about them obstructing the President’s plans.
All the rest pale by comparison
So with his captive Congress in tow and a very anxious public awaiting any action, which would point to more employment and economic growth, Roosevelt went on a constructive political rampage in that first 100 days. In briefest summary form, that still communicates the breadth of that activity, there were five major efforts. Those still set the standard for activist government solving the average persons’ problems which any subsequent President was going to have a problem even nearing in the future.
While part of his success is the very low base from which the U.S. economy began in 1933 after years in the Great Depression, there was a very creative and forceful aspect to the combined programs which also indeed proved more effective than many had expected.
The five programs were as follows (with thanks to various sources for the details):
▪ Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA): It provided basic life support to the worst affected by the Depression. Between 1933 and 1935 it spent $500 million on soup kitchens, blankets, employment schemes and nursery schools. It was shut down in 1935, as its work taken over by two completely new federal agencies, the Works Progress Administration (famous for the major public works and buildings the country still enjoys today) and the Social Security Administration.
▪ The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was Roosevelt's favorite creation, often called his pet. It allowed unemployed men to work for six months on conservation projects like planting trees, preventing soil erosion, and combatting forest fires. Especially in the mid-South and Southwest that has been devastated as failed farms led to the infamous ‘dustbowl’ conditions throughout a large swath of the country, it was rightfully viewed as a very constructive effort. It is also a model that many modern welfare program critics cite as an example of the sort of ‘workfare’ that should be re-instituted at present.
▪ The Agricultural Adjustment Administration was created in order to raise crop prices in response to the rural economic crisis noted above. The administration helped to control the falling prices by setting quotas, also providing direct payment for farmers who would agree to sign acreage reduction contracts. While this may have been the start of the U.S. government distortion of markets through crop price supports, at the time it was a necessary expedient to rejuvenate what had been a devastated agricultural sector.
▪ The National Industry Recovery Act came into place on June 16, 1933, at the very end of the Hundred Days. The act was an attempt at economic recovery from the severe deflation caused by the Great Depression. The act consists of promotion of industrial recovery and another effort known as the Public Works Administration (PWA). The latter used public money to build infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, for the state. This created new jobs, which achieved Roosevelt's main priority. As successful as it was, the act is one of those widely considered a legal failure; it generated large numbers of regulations and resulted in a significant loss of support for Roosevelt.
▪ The Tennessee Valley Authority, on the other hand, was a total success on multiple fronts. It was established to build dams on the Tennessee River designed to stimulate farming in the area through proper management of the water resources. It was also targeted to end poverty through not only more successful farming, yet also creating hydroelectricity that would provide a reliable and affordable source of power in an area of the country which previously had never had that advantage. This was in addition to the water resources control preventing deforestation as well as stimulating more reliable agricultural output.
Success and subsequent administrations’ challenges
That’s it. The various measures proved to be enough to lift the U.S. (and along with it the rest of the world) convincingly out of the Great Depression. Hard to match from any higher base than that deep malaise, or with any less dominant control of the typically more unwieldy U.S. Congress.
Some folks run around these days saying the Republicans have "control" of the White House and both houses of Congress. That depends on one’s definition of ‘control’, and the Republicans’ rather diverse party base and individual legislators are proving that it is not a game of sheer numbers. And it is not just something with which Donald Trump is struggling.
It has also been the case that other Presidents have struggled to accomplish much in their first 100 days, other than economic stimulus passed early in the Obama administration. And even that is a bit of a fudge.
Due to the nature of the Housing and Credit Bust having been glaring apparent since October 2008, Congress was already crafting and lobbying for a major stimulus package prior to Barack Obama’s election. And that only accelerated once he was elected, given the significant Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. In fact, in a Roosevelt-style success, the Obama stimulus package passed In the House without a single Republican vote on January 28, 2009, and cleared the Senate with a substantial majority still very early in his regime on February 10th.
As long as we are on it already, working back through any other Obama administration first 100 days accomplishments there was typically not all that much. He took the advice of defense officials to increase U.S. troops in Afghanistan by 17,000. Yet nine days later he gave a speech committing to removal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, and we all know how that worked out.
He put restrictions on the executive bonuses of any company that had accepted stimulus funds and also retroactively to any company which had received TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program) funds. This was not consistent with the “pro-growth New Democrat” image he was trying to promote.
His foreign policy efforts included conferences where he would meet with declared pariahs, and his positions were generally a pacifist counterpoint to the militarily aggressive Bush years. That included expression of what we (and other critics) have referred to as the ‘Kumbaya Moment - Group Hug’ theory of international relations.
While across time this did not work out very well in our humble opinion, by the end of 2009 it had netted him a Nobel Peace Prize. That was likely based in part on other first 100 days efforts, like the executive orders calling for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba U.S. military detention facility by the end of the year, promoting a nuclear-free world, and appointment of quite a few socially conscious department head.
And that’s it. Outside of the significant economic stimulus that was already in the works well ahead of his inauguration, not really all that much was done. Certainly nothing anywhere near holding a candle to the original ‘Hundred Days’ efforts of Roosevelt.
And the same goes for the much esteemed (at least in conservative political circles) Ronald Reagan. Yet he also had an event come to fruition very quickly that had been in the works for some months prior to his inauguration: the release on his first full day in office (January 21, 1981) of the U.S. hostages who had been held in Tehran since the Nov. 4, 1979 fall of the U.S. embassy during the Iranian Revolution.
That was likely due in part to the Reagan shift to a more militant stance against Communism and radical Islam. Liberals who feared his aggressive pro-America stance had nicknamed him ‘Ron the Bomb’ based on his position that U.S. military strength was to be celebrated rather than criticized.
As an aside, the post-Obama period is already feeling quite a bit like the end of weak foreign policy in the post-Carter period. The rumor at the time was that Reagan made a deal with the Iranians that they’d continue to hold the hostages to help him get elected. Much like the claims that Vladimir Putin leaked information to Wikileaks in order to assist Donald Trump, this sounds highly specious to us. Why would Putin want an aggressive Donald Trump versus a pliant anti-military Hillary Clinton any more than the Ayatollahs would want an aggressive American leader versus the wimpy Jimmy Carter?
In any event, there was not much that was completed legislatively during Reagan’s first 100 days. He did however issue executive orders lifting price controls on domestic oil that had contributed to the 1973 oil crisis, and send up the first drafts of major tax reforms and higher military spending to Congress. This was the famous Voodoo Economics supply-side stimulus that was not actually passed into law until much later.
Considering the vaunted position John F. Kennedy holds in Great American Renaissance mythology, most of his more important civil rights and other efforts did not take place until well into his single term. He certainly raised spirits after the previously somewhat dull Eisenhower years with his "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" speech. However, he did establish a fledgling food stamp program, used his first full 1961 public address to establish the pilot Peace Corps, and also took on one other minor challenge…
He authorized the ‘Bay of Pigs’ Cuban invasion by Cuban dissidents in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the communist regime. On April 19th that resulted in a Cuban revolutionary victory. Kennedy's administration was severely embarrassed, so much so that Kennedy stated he wanted to "splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the wind." Thus begins the Presidential suspicion of the CIA. Yet there was not much more in the first 100 days that might even come close to a Roosevelt-style impact.
As an addition to the Kennedy administration’s first 100 days, some of you might be wondering why we did not assess the first 100 days of the Lyndon Baines Johnson administration. That is because Johnson was not directly elected to his first term, taking over the office on the same day as tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. While much was accomplished by the master politician during the balance of his takeover term that ran until January of 1965, the national mourning period directly after Kennedy’s assassination and the investigations which followed occupied most of the focus of the U.S. government into early 1964.
And in the wake of Kennedy’s popularity, Johnson inherited a U.S. Congress that was more heavily weighted toward Democratic Party dominance that at any time since the Roosevelt administration. They held 255 of 432 seats in the House of Representatives, and 65 of 100 Senate seats. All of this would ultimately assist the great political persuader Johnson, who had been a powerful Senator prior to being selected as Kennedy’s Vice President.
Yet prior to the major civil rights, social spending, environmental and other legislation later in his first term, the only legislation which passed in the first 100 days was the December 17th passage of the Clean Air Act. That significantly enhanced the enforcement powers of the Environmental Protection Agency as well as authorizing its more stringent monitoring of air quality through various tests and studies.