"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.
But it's also clear that FDR fundamentally expanded the reach and power of the federal government, which most Americans now accept, especially in times of crisis. And that marked a monumental change in American life.