Starting Out Strong

Reviewed by Matthew Dallek
Sunday, February 15, 2009


FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America

By Adam Cohen | Penguin Press. 372 pp. $29.95


The Court-Packing Fight and the Triumph of Democracy

By Burt Solomon | Walker. 337 pp. $27

Seventy-six years on, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first 100 days in the White House have increasingly emerged as a touchstone for President Obama's fledgling administration. Obama told "60 Minutes" in November that he was reading a book about Roosevelt and praised "the basic principle that government has a role to play in kick-starting an economy that has ground to a halt." In his inaugural address, Obama vowed "bold and swift" action to turn the economy around, echoing FDR's pledge to take "action now" at a similar moment of widening peril in 1933.

The news media are saturated with talk of the 100 days. Some pundits act almost as if Obama's presidency will end on April 30. Advocacy groups are vying to get their issues on the initial agenda. Conservatives are challenging historians over whether Roosevelt's burst of activity improved economic conditions. Mindful of this media narrative, Obama's advisers seem to have scripted his first 100 days as carefully as a football coach plans the first plays of the game.

For instance, Obama has signed executive orders reversing President Bush's policies on torture, the Guantanamo Bay detention center and the environment. He dramatically appeared at the State Department with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to declare a new day in U.S. diplomacy, while aides have floated the idea of delivering an early speech in a predominantly Muslim capital such as Cairo or Jakarta. Furthermore, Obama's stimulus plan has showcased his FDR-like commitment to swift and decisive steps to arrest the economic slide.

Cambridge historian Anthony Badger and Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter have recently published books about FDR's first 100 days in office, and Adam Cohen, an assistant editorial page editor of the New York Times, now weighs in with Nothing to Fear. It's a valuable addition, a deeply sympathetic and thoroughly convincing portrait of FDR and five of his senior advisers that unearths how the aides' interactions with Roosevelt helped to spawn the New Deal.

Cohen argues that FDR's first 100 days inserted, for the first time, the federal government deeply into the nation's economic activity and the everyday lives of most Americans. The country witnessed not simply a legislative flurry to rescue banks, provide jobs and send emergency relief to the unemployed, but also the rise of a new compact whereby government took responsibility for regulating financial institutions, ensuring people's welfare and reforming capitalism. Cohen asserts in quiet and spare prose that this social arrangement has survived the era of Ronald Reagan's anti-big-government agenda and "created modern America."

Tracing each adviser's views to earlier personal and professional experience, Cohen shows how this group worked with farmers, workers and local relief agencies to shape Roosevelt's agenda. Initially, the fiscally conservative budget director Lewis Douglas gained the upper hand, and FDR signed Douglas's cherished Economy Act, which cut federal spending and sought to strengthen the government's balance sheet. Roosevelt's fiscal conservatism quickly gave way, however, to a revolutionary, much more activist agenda. Raymond Moley, the pragmatic leader of FDR's "brain trust," shrewdly guided a landmark intervention in the nation's banks, implementing a plan to prevent the collapse of the teetering financial system. Three additional advisers convinced FDR that plans for relief, recovery and federal spending were desperately needed. Henry Wallace, the secretary of agriculture, helped to craft FDR's Agricultural Adjustment Act, which Cohen calls the "first law that committed the government to caring for its destitute citizens."

Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor, was a strong ally of the working class and the first woman cabinet member; she led the struggle to enact far-reaching federal relief programs (in the form of grants to the states), protections for workers and a spate of public works efforts. Perkins's colleague Harry Hopkins provided emergency relief to the poor and the homeless, and hired teachers, artists, architects and construction workers as part of a vast public works program.

Cohen reminds us of the obstacles FDR faced within his administration, in the Congress and throughout the government. None was so intimidating as the conservative Supreme Court, which struck down several New Deal laws in the mid-1930s. Soon after winning re-election in a landslide, FDR struck back -- proposing a plan to add six new members to the Court. On one level, it was a case study in presidential over-reach. Still, FDR's court-packing plan didn't mortally threaten American democracy, as journalist Burt Solomon claims in FDR v. The Constitution. Solomon argues that if FDR's plan had succeeded, it would have set a dangerous precedent. All justices thereafter would have fretted about the political consequences when issuing any decision from the bench. This rather alarmist portrait, however, minimizes the extent to which the controversy actually signified a struggle among FDR, Congress and a resistant-to-change court over who would guide and control the economic agenda -- and what role government would have in 20th-century America.

FDR's court-packing plan was a brazen attempt to defend his liberal governing vision and his faith in a strong federal hand in directing America's economy. His plan failed, but the Court ultimately let most elements of the New Deal stand, and Roosevelt's policy achievements are still rippling across the political landscape in Obama's America. FDR vastly shifted Americans' expectations of governmental responsibility for people's welfare; showed that communicating well and directly with Americans can mobilize vast constituencies as well as reassure a jittery nation; and exemplified how well-crafted federal spending programs can create jobs, build bridges, shore up the nation's aging infrastructure and arrest a nation's economic decline. Cohen's smart study of Roosevelt's first 100 days vividly captures all of these achievements and reaffirms just how dramatic a break from the past the New Deal really was. Solomon's book is a missed opportunity to explain some of the structural limitations on FDR's reform agenda, the ways in which political and institutional forces combined to quash his audacious efforts to overhaul the Supreme Court and ensure the survival of his liberal program to save capitalism from its own worst excesses. ยท

Matthew Dallek, who teaches at the University of California Washington Center, is the author of "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company