It's not a perfect measure, but it's a useful one—the 100-day standard for gauging presidential effectiveness. The underlying truth is that presidents tend to be most effective when they first take office, when their leadership style seems fresh and new, when the aura of victory is still powerful, and when their impact on Congress is usually at its height. There is nothing magic about the number, and many presidential aides over the years have complained that it is an artificial yardstick. But it has been used by the public, the media, and scholars as a gauge of presidential success and activism since Franklin D. Roosevelt pioneered the 100-day concept when he took office in 1933. He was faced with the calamity of the Depression—and he moved with unprecedented dispatch to address the problem. "The first hundred days of the New Deal have served as a model for future presidents of bold leadership and executive-legislative harmony," writes Cambridge University historian Anthony Badger in FDR: The First Hundred Days. In this series, U.S. News looks at the most far-reaching 100-day periods in presidential history, starting with FDR. The series will run each week on Thursdays.
Faced with the spreading catastrophe of the Depression in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt knew from the start that what Americans wanted most of all was reassurance that under his leadership, they could weather the storm. Amid shattering rates of unemployment, bank failures, and a widespread loss of confidence, FDR said in his inaugural speech March 4: "This nation asks for action, and action now. Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require."
This began an unprecedented period of experimentation during which Roosevelt tried different methods to ease the Depression; if they failed, he tried something else. His success in winning congressional approval became the stuff of legend and established FDR as the most effective president in dealing with Congress during the first 100 days.
The circumstances that Roosevelt faced were unique. Banks were shutting down. Depositors were losing their life's savings. Businesses were running out of enough cash to keep going. At least 25 percent of American workers were unemployed. Many Americans felt it was a national emergency.
"When Roosevelt took power on March 4, 1933, many influential Americans doubted the capacity of a democratic government to act decisively enough to save the country," writes historian Anthony Badger in FDR: The First Hundred Days . "Machine guns guarded government buildings. The newspapers and his audience responded most enthusiastically to Roosevelt's promises in his inaugural to assume wartime powers if necessary. That sense of emergency certainly made Congress willing to give FDR unprecedented power." Adds political scientist William Leuchtenburg in The FDR Years: "Roosevelt came to office at a desperate time, in the fourth year of a worldwide depression that raised the gravest doubts about the future of Western civilization."
The new president immediately established a new, infectious atmosphere of optimism. Even Sen. Hiram Johnson, a Republican from California, conceded, "The admirable trait in Roosevelt is that he has the guts to try.... He does it all with the rarest good nature.... We have exchanged for a frown in the White House a smile. Where there were hesitation and vacillation, weighing always the personal political consequences, feebleness, timidity, and duplicity, there are now courage and boldness and real action."
Roosevelt immediately called Congress into special session and kept it there for three months. He found that the Democrats who were in control were eager to do his bidding, and even some Republicans were cooperative. Raymond Moley, a member of FDR's inner circle, said many legislators "had forgotten to be Republicans or Democrats" as they worked together to relieve the crisis.
FDR quickly won congressional passage for a series of social, economic, and job-creating bills that greatly increased the authority of the federal government—the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which supplied states and localities with federal money to help the jobless; the Civil Works Administration to create jobs during the first winter of his administration; and the Works Progress Administration, which replaced FERA, pumped money into circulation, and concentrated on longer-term projects. The Public Works Administration focused on creating jobs through heavy construction in such areas as water systems, power plants, and hospitals. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. protected bank accounts. The Civilian Conservation Corps provided jobs for unemployed young men. The Tennessee Valley Authority boosted regional development. Also approved were the Emergency Banking Act, the Farm Credit Act, and the National Industrial Recovery Act.
In all, Roosevelt got 15 major bills through Congress in his first 100 days. "Congress doesn't pass legislation anymore—they just wave at the bills as they go by," said humorist Will Rogers.