We have now made it past Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, the traditional point at which political journalists pass sage judgment on the early results of a new presidency (or at least tap out a few saved-up think pieces in need of a hook). The country owes this practice to Franklin Roosevelt, who in July of 1933 sat down for one of his early fireside chats and told radio listeners that he wanted to reflect on “the hundred days which had been devoted to the starting of the wheels of the New Deal.” Reporters have been using it as a benchmark for taking stock ever since.
Does the custom still make any sense today? Maybe. Some research has found that presidents really have had more success passing legislation during their first 100 days than later on, possibly because they have tended to enjoy a moment of bipartisan approval early in their terms. These honeymoon periods might be thing of the past, however, thanks to increasing partisan polarization, which means the first three months might not matter in quite the same way they used to.
But whether or not it makes practical sense,marking the first 100 days bugs me purely from the standpoint of historical appreciation. FDR’s first 100 Days, momentous as they were, are arguably a tiny bit overrated in the popular imagination. And the focus on them obscures the fact that Roosevelt truly cemented his domestic legacy in a period known as the Second 100 Days—which took place two years later, in 1935. That’s when we got little things like Social Security and the foundation of modern labor law. The commentating class basically ignores that stretch, rather than think about what lessons it might hold.
Roosevelt’s first 100 days were really the disaster-response period of his presidency, the moment when the new chief executive grabbed the fire hose and started putting out the flames that had not just engulfed the economy—around a quarter of Americans were unemployed, with the share in some cities vastly higher—but were threatening to destroy the foundations of capitalism. After taking the oath of office in March, he called a special three-month session of Congress, which proceeded to pass some 76 pieces of legislation.
FDR’s achievements in this period were substantial. He successfully halted a spiraling financial crisis by declaring a national bank holiday, and signed reforms to prevent future meltdowns. He freed the U.S. from the shackles of the gold standard, legalized beer (cheers!), stood up public works and relief agencies, rescued rural America with farm subsidies, launched a massive regional development effort by creating the Tennessee Valley Authority, and much more. Though it would ultimately take the industrial frenzy of World War II to restore full prosperity to the United States, the economy did begin to heal and the sense of impending calamity faded.
But some key parts of his agenda in the first 100 days turned out to be a bust. Most notorious was the very centerpiece of Roosevelt’s recovery effort, the National Industrial Recovery Act. The law was motivated by a belief among key early New Dealers that the economy suffered from an excessive amount of “savage and wolfish competition” between businesses, as Hugh Johnson, the first leader of the National Recovery Administration, the new agency created under the law, put it. This “murderous doctrine” had supposedly led companies to churn out an oversupply of goods, causing prices to collapse, while paying their workers unlivable wages, depriving them of spending power. The solution,in these New Dealers’ view, was to impose a bit of logical order on the economy: The recovery act allowed industries to settle on competition codes, in which they would agree on production levels, prices, and labor standards, including minimum wages, all under government supervision. Essentially, it was central-planning light.
The scheme did have some upsides. Most crucially, the law guaranteed workers the right to form a union, which led to a wave of organizing. Textile mills kindly used their code as an opportunity to ban child labor, which was still legal at the time. And if you squint, you can see how some of the basic ideas had value; the industry codes were supposed to be negotiated by boards representing business, labor, and consumers, which made it look a bit like what we’d today call sectoral bargaining. But overall, the National Recovery Administration, represented by its ubiquitous logo of a blue eagle, flopped more than it flew.
First, there was the silly red tape it created, which proliferated through small sectors of the economy until Roosevelt ordered his regulators to lay off. As the historian William Leucthenberg recounted in history of the era:
Code 450 regulated the Dog Food Industry, Code 427 the Curled Hair Manufacturing Industry and Horse Hair Dressing Industry, and Code 262 the Shoulder Pad Manufacturing Industry. In New York, I. “Izzy” Herk, executive secretary of Code 348, brought order to the Burlesque Theatrical Industry by insisting that no production could feature more than four strips.
More sinisterly, the code-making process in many key sectors was dominated by the largest corporations and their trade groups, who used it as a federally sanctioned opportunity to ignore antitrust laws to the detriment of smaller competitors. Few of the code authorities ultimately had representatives from labor or consumers. As historian David Kennedy wrote in his doorstopper Freedom From Fear, it “amounted to nothing less than the cartelization of huge sectors of American industry under the government’s auspices.” Businesses often flouted the labor rules they’d supposedly agreed on, and undermined their workers’ attempts to organize by forming company-sponsored unions. When the Supreme Court struck down the whole thing as unconstitutional in 1935, Roosevelt was furious, fuming (not incorrectly) that the court had relegated the government’s regulatory powers to “the horse and buggy definition of interstate commerce.” But in retrospect, it seems almost like a lucky mercy killing.
Which brings us to the second 100 days. In theory, the demise of the National Industrial Recovery Act could have cowed the administration, as the Supreme Court seemed poised to begin striking down much of the New Deal. But instead, Roosevelt chose to pursue a new, bold course of action. In June of 1935, he called another special session of Congress, and laid out four “must-pass” pieces of legislation: A new labor plan from Sen. Robert Wagner, a banking bill, a law aimed at breaking up large utility holding companies that were seen as monopolistic menaces sitting atop the electricity sector, and—most crucially—his social security proposal. Later, he added a tax bill designed to “soak the rich.” All passed, though the tax bill was watered down quite a bit.
Without these accomplishments, the New Deal would have been an impressive effort of economic firefighting and expansion of federal power, with some lasting legacies like banking deposit insurance and securities regulations. With them, Roosevelt laid down the bricks of a truly transformative legacy. (Historians often refer to his domestic accomplishments from 1935 on as “the Second New Deal.”) Most momentous was the Social Security Act, which would undergird the modern welfare state, creating our national system of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance as well as aid programs for the children of widows and the blind. The Wagner Act—aka the National Labor Relations Act—became the cornerstone of U.S. labor law. The banking bill essentially created the structure of the modern Federal Reserve, centralizing power over monetary policy with the presidentially appointed Board of Governors. The holding company bill breathed new life into the antitrust movement, and signaled a philosophical break with the thinking that had birthed the NIRA.
There were a number of different factors that led to the second 100 days. Many of the ideas, like the Wagner Act and Social Security legislation, had been gestating for months or years. Roosevelt was feeling pressure from populist demagogues like the notorious Catholic priest and radio personality Father Coughlin and Louisiana Sen. Huey Long, whose “Share Our Wealth” campaign promised to “make every man a king.” With the National Industrial Recovery Act gone, America needed some kind of new labor law. But importantly, Democrats had won a smashing victory in the 1934 midterms powered by the incipient economic recovery and the president’s popularity. FDR pushed his agenda because he had the power to do it.
In some ways, you could say the first 100 days provided an appetizer for Roosevelt’s agenda, while the second 100 turned out to be the main course. “The first 100 days were sort of a down payment on what Roosevelt the New Dealer was going to try to do,” University of California, Davis historian Eric Rauchway, author of the new book Why The New Deal Matters, told me. “The second 100 days really delivers on it in a way they weren’t able to the first time around because they’re successful at promoting a relatively equitable economic recovery.”
So, what does any of this have to do with today? Mostly, it’s a reminder that we didn’t always live in a political reality where presidents had to deliver change early or not at all. Before he was elected, Roosevelt famously promised to tackle the Great Depression through “bold, persistent experimentation.” As he said: “It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” He had a chance to govern by that creed in large part because voters were able to give him time, and as a result, the country got better policy. Similarly, Lyndon Johnson didn’t launch the Great Society until he had thoroughly nuked Barry Goldwater and the Republican Party in the 1964 election.
Barring an unlikely turn of events, it is virtually impossible to imagine that Joe Biden will get a similar window to govern. The slim majorities Democrats hold on Capitol Hill and the structural advantages Republicans enjoy, such as their ability to control redistricting in crucial states, make it likely that the GOP will at least win back the House no matter what the president’s approval rating is. Democrats could try to preserve their chances by passing legislation that would ban partisan gerrymandering, such as the voting rights bill H.R. 1, but as of now that seems unlikely to happen. Biden may well be able to follow up his massive effort at disaster response with historic bills modernizing our infrastructure and welfare state. But there won’t necessarily be chances to find out what’s worked and what hasn’t, and to change directions where necessary.
It would be nice if we still had a political system where a popular progressive president could continue to govern and refine or build on his agenda. But without some sort of reforms, that possibility might be history.