Cyr: Biden's first 100 days and the legacy of FDR


President Joe Biden has just completed his first 100 days in the White House, and marked the occasion by addressing a joint session of Congress on April 28.

Arthur Cyr

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to emphasize this length of time, and create a benchmark for future chief executives. FDR launched an enormous whirlwind of policy and political activity immediately after his inauguration as president on March 4, 1933.

This included the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which moved inauguration of the president and vice president from March up to Jan. 20. Under that amendment as well, members of Congress assume office Jan. 3 rather than the later month.

The nation then was gripped by the Great Depression, with unemployment above 20%, vast stretches of industry idled, and the financial system in collapse. FDR’s rhetoric reflected this.

The most cited phrase of this inaugural is the ringing Roosevelt declaration that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Polio’s scourge left the president’s legs paralyzed, which makes at least equally notable that he went on to describe “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts.”

Less often quoted, this unusually historic speech includes the pointed declaration that if the legislative branch failed to cooperate in tackling the Depression, “I shall ask the Congress for ... broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

The next day, March 5, FDR convened his cabinet and reached agreement on radical financial measures. He declared a three-day “Bank Holiday” to try to calm the public and asked Congress to reconvene March 9 in a special session. Extensive economic reform legislation followed.

His Democratic Party had overwhelming majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The era of Republican Party dominance, which began during the Civil War, came crashing down along with the national economy.

Preempting the stage, moving fast, Roosevelt also held his first press conference on March 8. His press meetings were dramatically informal, involving open give and take not seen since his relative Theodore Roosevelt had occupied the White House.

The Biden administration quickly secured Congressional passage of extensive financial aid legislation, in reaction to the ongoing, pervasively publicized Coronavirus public health problem. The stimulus package, passed with only Democratic support, expands federal economic involvement, along with spending and debt levels. The price tag of approximately $2 trillion surpasses even the costly financial measures implemented during the last administration.

The administration also has a very ambitious overall legislative agenda. During the serious financial crisis and recession of a decade ago, President Barack Obama and others in politics as well as the media described the situation as the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.

In stark contrast, while our economy has experienced disruption, growth overall continues. This reflects radical fiscal and monetary policies - dwarfing the Great Depression and other previous deficits.

Sen. Tim Scott presented the Republican response to President Biden’s speech. He is a relatively young and exceptionally articulate member of the U.S. Senate who is also an African-American.

Sen. Scott represents South Carolina, a secessionist stronghold historically, a leader in racist segregationist policies into the 1960s.

Follow Sen. Scott, conscientiously.

Learn More: Jonathan Alter, “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope”

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu.