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.
"Never before had a president converted so many promises into so much legislation so quickly," wrote historian James McGregor Burns in The Lion and the Fox .
This was only part of a vast array of government programs that Roosevelt called the New Deal, and collectively they represented a revolution as the nation shifted from a limited central government to an extremely powerful one. Through it all, FDR bonded with everyday Americans by means of his speeches and "fireside chats"—homespun radio talks that reached millions of listeners as the president explained his objectives and convinced his fellow citizens that he was their champion.
"Mr. Roosevelt thinks and talks a great deal about government," wrote Anne O'Hare McCormick in the New York Times March 26, 1933. "He has very pronounced ideas on the functions of the Presidency. He believes that the President is literally the leader of the people, particularly in the development of ideas. He believes that at every turning point of history some one rises up who can enunciate and in a sense personify the new direction of the public mind and will. In his view America has reached such a crossroads. He does not go so far as to speak of himself as the leader of the economic revolution now in progress, but there is no doubt that he considers the President of the United States at this juncture the instrument by which profound and necessary changes in the American system are to be effected."
FDR also understood that his effectiveness would be at its height on Capitol Hill at the start of his term. "From long experience," wrote political scientist Richard Neustadt, "the judgment on the Hill appears to be that in the first weeks after the inauguration, most Americans wish their new president well and want him to succeed, with partisanship relatively low, interest in him relatively high, and interest fueled by curiosity about him in his new, never-before-seen capacity, not as one party's candidate but as the country's magistrate. The congressional instinct, therefore, crossing party lines, is to repress most overt signs of rampant competition until that public mood is seen to fade, as judged by media reactions, constituent expressions, and polls. Then, as an institution, Congress bounces back to its accustomed stance of vocal, procedural, and substantive competitiveness with the president."
Much of that dynamic has changed, especially the notion of partisanship being suspended in the early weeks of a new presidency. As President Barack Obama is learning today, the political opposition rarely gives any chief executive a break anymore.
All the more reason to consider Roosevelt's first 100 days unique.
Historians still debate whether FDR's programs actually helped to end the Depression or whether it was World War II that did the trick. He created the New Deal, a huge social and economic experiment, and it's clear in retrospect that some of his ideas worked better than others.