Political Physics: Is Obama Making the Grade by FDR Standards?


a blogumn by Monique King-Viehland

Photo by Tony Case
Photo by Tony Case

My first semester of college was my worst semester ever at Smith.

I had the lowest grade point average of my entire collegiate career, I was so overwhelmed by my coursework that I barely left my room, I got into a physical altercation with my roommate and I ran for class president and lost.  My first semester at Smith was an absolute disaster.

Fast forward nearly three and a half years later.  I graduated from Smith with highest honors.  I was class president, president of my house and president of the house presidents association.  I sat on the student government board for two years.   I interned at the White House.  I was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and obtained a full ride to graduate school.

That first semester at Smith was in no way an indicator of my potential.  And if I had been judged on that semester they might have given me my walking papers.

I cannot imagine what would have happened if my entire collegiate career had been judged by just that first semester – a little over 100 days.

So this whole notion of “scoring” a president on the progress that they have made during their first 100 days seems so shortsighted to me.

FDR took office in the midst of thousands of banks collapsing across the US, the stock market had lost 90% of its value, farmers were being forced off their land as commodity prices dropped to new lows after a decade of recession, and the unemployment rate had skyrocketed from 4% to 25%.

In the 103 days that followed his inauguration, FDR enacted a whirlwind of legislation – from a bank stabilization bill to farm support to unemployment benefits.  With the support of the democratically controlled Congress, the first version of the New Deal was passed in June 1933.

It also cemented the notion of the “first 100 days” as the yardstick that would be used to measure every president moving forward.

It is fitting that FDR was the catalyst for the 100-day metric, given that since taking office there has been a lot of discussion about the comparisons between FDR and Obama.  As noted in The Age, an Australian newspaper, “the circumstances of Obama’s first 100 days — including the steepest downturn since FDR’s Great Depression — invite comparison to the man who rates as one of the top three US presidents.  The rapid bursting of the bubble — the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the mortgage foreclosure crisis of 2008 — prompted seismic shifts in American thinking in both eras.”  Obama supporters (and critics) might point to the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 as a “new deal” like accomplishment.

Whether you believe Obama is FDR reincarnated or not, neither Obama supporters nor critics can argue that he has been extremely busy these past 100 days.

According to CNN.Com the Obama Administration can cite some significant accomplishments:

  • Passage of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan;
  • Signing into law an expanded children’s health care program that it says provides benefits to 4 million additional working families;
  • Closing the controversial Guantanamo Bay prison;
  • Signing the Ledbetter law requiring equal pay for women;
  • Winning approval of a congressional budget resolution that puts Congress on record as dedicated to dealing with major health care reform legislation this year;
  • Implementing new ethics guidelines designed to significantly curtail the influence of lobbyists on the executive branch;
  • Establishing a Middle Class Working Families Task Force;
  • Making his first trip to Europe for the G-20 Summit;
  • Recommitting millions of dollars to the prevention and awareness of HIV/AIDS in America; and
  • Breaking from the Bush administration on a number of international policy fronts, including climate change, the Iraq War, etc.

And it appears that the American public approves of the job President Obama is doing and believe that the country is headed in the right direction.  According to Fox News, “Obama’s job approval rating comes in at 62%, down just three points from the 65% approval he received after his first week in office.”  In addition, an Associated Press poll shows that 48% of Americans believe the US is headed in the right direction.

But I still think it is irresponsible and perhaps even a little dangerous to use the last 100 days a measure of the “Obama Presidency.”

Though FDR was extremely successful in those first 103 days, most of the relief programs that were implemented as part of the New Deal were overturned by the Supreme Court or shut down during WWII.

Yet FDR is still considered one of the most popular presidents in US history.

Although Obama is having a much better “first semester” than I did at Smith, I think it is too early to say whether or not he will make the grade.

You can read more about Obama’s first 100 days here.