A few days after his 1933 inauguration, Franklin Roosevelt went to the Georgetown home of retired Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to celebrate the eminent jurist’s 92nd birthday. After the new president left, Holmes summed him up: “A second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.”
The latter remains much more important. Roosevelt was a president with the humility and security to surround himself with the best people he could find to help lift the country in a dark time.
And so is Joe Biden. He’s been pitch-perfect lately, with a calming and cooperative temperament that fits this fraught national moment. And he caught a big break on his way in. Thanks to the results of the Georgia Senate run-offs, the Democrats will control both houses of Congress for the first time in a decade, which gives “Uncle Joe” a fighting chance to be an historic president.
While Build Back Better has a long way to go before it’s the New Deal, Biden is poised to match or even exceed what Roosevelt accomplished in his legendary Hundred Days, the first time that artificial calendar metric was used to measure early presidential success.
There are striking similarities between 1933 and 2021 in the mood of the country. During both interregnums, a peculiar lassitude took hold, as if the myriad problems confronting the new president could never be surmounted. The Depression depressed the American people, who seemed to curl up in the fetal position; the pandemic has had a similar debilitating psychological effect, compounded by the shock of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.
For all of today’s suffering, the economy was worse then, with no social safety net. The stock market had plummeted 75 percent since 1929, more than a quarter of the workforce was unemployed, and, with most banks already closed before FDR took office, the United States was on a barter economy. When a reporter asked John Maynard Keynes if we had ever seen anything like this before, he said: Yes, it was called the Dark Ages and it lasted 400 years.
Today, at least we have an end to Donald Trump’s presidency, a functional banking system, and vaccines that work. Thank God for small favors.
During the 1932-33 transition, outgoing President Herbert Hoover tried to rope FDR into agreeing to his old, discredited remedies for the Depression (balancing the budget, re-negotiating foreign debt). Roosevelt resisted, in part to sharpen the break from the past.
Trump has been AWOL on COVID and incited an insurrection, which means that Biden will need no special effort to draw a bright line between himself and his demented predecessor.
Hoover and Roosevelt shouted at each other on the day before the inauguration, then rode in silence together down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol amid compromised security. (A taxi filled with three bewildered women passengers accidentally lodged itself between two official cars in the motorcade).
This year, for the first time since Andrew Johnson refused to attend the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant in 1869, the sore-losing and seditious outgoing president will not attend the swearing-in of his successor.
Like Biden, FDR was inaugurated amid challenges to democracy. In 1933, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, a more competent Trump, was popular in the United States. Studebaker had a popular car called “The Dictator.” The columnist Walter Lippmann advised Roosevelt that “you may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial powers.” Even Eleanor Roosevelt, more liberal than her husband, privately suggested that a “benevolent dictator” might be what the country needed.
But while Franklin Roosevelt flirted with drafting World War I veterans into his own private army, like Mussolini’s blackshirts and Hitler’s brownshirts, he settled instead on an aggressive but entirely legal and democratic use of presidential power. His famous inaugural address is remembered for the line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (an inspired piece of nonsense considering that hunger and homelessness were real things to fear), but its most important word was “action.” He used it five times in his speech.
Even before being sworn in, Biden is defining himself as an action figure, devoting a series of speeches in recent days to all the ambitious things he plans to do—and when. And his inaugural address—delivered in a locked-down capital—will almost certainly amplify his call for action, with an optimistic tone influenced by Roosevelt. When the action begins, it will be a tonic, as it was in 1933.
FDR’s actions were largely improvisational. “To look upon these programs as the result of a unified plan,” Roosevelt’s aide, Raymond Moley, said later of the New Deal, “was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes… had been put there by an interior decorator.”
But taken together, FDR’s debut amounted to nothing less than a re-writing of the American social contract—the “deal” the American people struck with their government over what they owed each other. Some ideas were liberal (jobs programs), some conservative (reduced government spending) and some moderate. Like Barack Obama in 2009, Roosevelt rejected progressive pressure to nationalize banks, but moved aggressively to regulate them. He established bank deposit insurance (the FDIC), split commercial and investment banking through the Glass-Steagall Act, and began tentative regulation of Wall Street (formalized the following year in the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission). He began rural power cooperatives (soon to be the Tennessee Valley Authority) and initiated the first farm price supports
Not all of FDR’s early ideas worked. The huge National Recovery Administration was an intrusive and doomed regulatory scheme aimed at raising wages and prices (It went so far as to regulate how many times a night a stripper could take off her clothes). But by nationalizing the struggle against the Depression—shopkeepers hung a decal of a blue eagle in their windows with the legend “We Do Our Part”—Roosevelt created a sense of common purpose. Biden hopes to do the same.
All told, 15 bills were enacted during FDR’s first hundred days, many of them watered down or close calls because of the large conservative wing of the Democratic Party. Others were temporary—abandoned when a new idea or agency caught the president’s fancy; FDR believed in what he called “bold persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails admit it frankly and try another. But above all try something.” That was the spirit of the New Deal.
Biden, too, will pragmatically adjust his program as necessary. But his $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” for dealing with COVID relief and the cratering economy is much more specific—and ambitious—than what FDR did early on. It includes $350 billion in aid for state and local governments; $1,400 cash payments to most Americans; extension of unemployment insurance; expansion of refundable tax credits for working families and children that would sharply reduce poverty; and a series of executive orders that reverse much of the damage Trump did on immigration and the environment.
The centerpiece of Biden’s plan is his promise of “100 million vaccinations in 100 days.” If Biden succeeds—if he “manages the hell out of it,” as he says—it will be the fastest mobilization in American history.
Until now, that distinction has belonged to the Civilian Conservation Corps. In March of 1933, FDR told his team that he wanted 250,000 young men employed in the forests clearing trails, planting trees, and preserving topsoil by the summer and no excuses! Skeptics said it could never happen. But Roosevelt convinced the Army, the Department of Labor and other agencies to cooperate and they did so on schedule. By the time the CCC was phased out in 1942, 3 million corps members had planted 3 billion trees (a model for climate change activists), developed 800 state parks, protected 20 million acres from erosion and inspired all the national service programs that followed.
History may rhyme when Biden tries to get the National Guard to join with pharmacies and state and local health authorities in a gargantuan effort to fix Trump’s mess and control the pandemic. He aims to hire 100,000 new public health workers to inject a million arms a day. If the plan works, this could give the broader national service movement a shot in the arm, too.
With his exquisite sense of timing, FDR paused after his early victories on banking and said: “It’s time for some beer!” He won quick approval of legislation legalizing 3.2% beer in anticipation of the full repeal of Prohibition at the end of 1933. Biden might consider doing something similar with marijuana. Even if the Senate doesn’t act to match the House, which in December removed marijuana from the list of controlled substances, Biden can use his administrative and pardon powers to decriminalize weed, raising the spirits of millions.
Can Biden get big things done this winter and spring? Will 100 percent Democratic unity in the Senate last 100 days? That’s what will be necessary for the parts of his program that can be enacted through “reconciliation,” which avoids the filibuster. The odds look good, despite having no votes to spare. Even without Trump to pull them together, Democrats are impressively united nowadays in wanting the new president to succeed. With any luck, we’ll witness a level of haste in addressing our problems not seen since those thrilling days of 1933.
Jonathan Alter is the author of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope and the newly published His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.