THE BLOG
05/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Don't Know Much About the First 100 Days: Then and Now

As a yardstick of Presidential accomplishment, the "First 100 Days" is surely a faulty measure. Lincoln's first one hundred days were miserable, and included the beginning of the Civil War.

But ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed sixteen pieces of major legislation and fundamentally altered the American political landscape during one hundred days back in 1933, the bar has been set very high for Presidents.

With the country mired in the depths of the Great Depression, Roosevelt remade American government between March 9 and July 16, 1933, with a special session of Congress that closed the nation's banks for a "holiday," rammed through laws that created entirely new federal agencies, and radically altered the American economy. He even amended the Prohibition laws so Americans could have a beer. (Full repeal of Prohibition came a bit later.)

Scholars and historians still debate whether FDR's programs worked or prolonged the Depression. But what cannot be argued is that in the process, FDR created an unprecedented set of expectations about what that government could accomplish. And a standard for what a new President should accomplish in his first few months in office.

Roosevelt never set out to do what he did in one hundred days, but since then, many Presidents have used the First 100 Days as a tool -if not of policy, then of propaganda. Following his 1964 landslide election, Lyndon B. Johnson wanted to make sure that his administration actually accomplished more than Roosevelt had. According to Anthony Badger's FDR: The First Hundred Days, he told an aide, "to jerk out every damn bill you can and get them down here by the 12th." Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton had similar ambitions.

So while it is now fashionable to dismiss the hubbub over Obama's "First 100 Days" as a silly, artificial media creation, the fact remains it is still a significant marker in his first term.

In truth, it is not really about how much time has passed and how many pieces of legislation are signed into law. It is about the tone that has been set. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, he not only needed to address the terrible economic crisis facing the country, he knew that he had to restore hope in a country that hade next to none and find a way to connect with the American public. He began with the March 4, 1933 inaugural, famed for " all we have to fear is fear itself." But he went even further when, a few days into his Presidency, FDR began the tradition of "fireside chats," radio talks speaking directly -and in his case, very reassuringly - to the American people about what the country was going through and what he was going to do about it.

There is little question that Barack Obama has inherited a set of problems that is nearly as great as the crisis Roosevelt faced in 1933. These crises have combined to give Barack Obama's already historic presidency a degree of wartime footing unrivalled since Roosevelt.

Just Take a look at Obama's "Honey Do List" --

--Deal with the biggest financial crisis in modern times -including the rescue of America's iconic automobile industry in a death spiral, a housing meltdown threatening millions with the loss of their homes, unemployment numbers not seen in years, and a banking system coming off a long, costly binge;

--Close Guantanamo Bay and deal with those in custody;

--Deliver on the promise to get the troops out of Iraq;

--Fix Afghanistan;

-- Restore America's reputation in Europe and South America, where many leaders have been at odds with the US over policy;

--Oh, and while you're at it, could you solve the education crisis, Global Warming, and the Health Care mess. And get a puppy.

Obama has responded with some FDR-like legislation, including a stimulus package of boggling size; carrots and sticks for the automakers; a stop-and-start proposal to free up the banking system. He also announced a plan for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq (albeit taking a few months longer than he had promised while campaigning); a realignment of forces and strategy in Afghanistan; a plan to close the camps at Guantanamo Bay; a reversal of Bush-era policies on stem cells and a "morning after" pill; a reversal of Pentagon policy that kept the media from showing the returning bodies of American service members killed in action; and perhaps most explosively, the release of classified documents relating to American interrogation policies. Oh, and a new puppy.

It is impossible to gauge whether any or all of these measures will have the intended effect. Those answers may not be known for years.

What is clear is that for most Americans, Barack Obama has changed the game. And most of them think for the better, at least right now. In the space of a few months, the economy is not really a whole lot better. But Americans seem to believe once more that it will get better. And Barack has disarmed most critics by proving to be articulate, intelligent, hard working and thoughtful. Americans have taken note.

Still critics on the right and left have pecked away at nearly every initiative and decision Obama has made. Is the stimulus too big? Not big enough? Should he let GM fail? Or keep it alive? Why not a shelter dog?

There is no question that Barack Obama has changed the tone and style of Presidency, just as FDR -- and Ronald Reagan -- did. Will his policies reshape the landscape of government, as FDR did, and Reagan tried to do? Stay tuned. There are still 1360 days to go.