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Is FDR-Era Yardstick Still Relevant?

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It was March 4, 1933, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was being sworn in as president after his Democratic Party assumed control of the levers of power in a country deeply troubled by a historic economic collapse.

Over the next 3 1/2 months, he would amass a slew of legislative victories, help set in motion the recovery from the Great Depression and establish a new yardstick for chief executives.

Roosevelt accomplished so much during his first 100 days in office, presidential historians have said, that the period soon became the common barometer by which future presidents -- including Barack Obama -- would be measured.

"After the first 100 days of FDR, because so much happened, not only the laws he got passed, but he had changed the mood of the country so they felt more positive and he set the tone for what would become the administration . . . it's part of our culture to be measuring this," said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. "It's the first measuring mark."

But as critics view President Obama's record through the 100-day prism, some historians are questioning whether the measuring point has any value.

Historian Ron Chernow, who has written biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller, said it is unfair to compare the early months of any president, including Obama's, to those of Roosevelt.

"When FDR became president, the economic situation was so dire that there was a quasi-revolutionary atmosphere in the country," Chernow said. "So I think that that becomes an unfair yardstick by which to judge Obama. In 1933, what was ideologically possible was much greater than today simply because the degree of despair was much greater. People really don't know how far they want to push reform or how deep-seated the problems are in the country."

Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University said there is a "100-days mania going on where all media outlets are trying to out-100-days the other."

Said Princeton historian Sean Wilentz: "Historically, it's just kind of crazy. I think it's completely artificial and of very little use in thinking about any presidency. By the same token, you can talk about what a president has been doing and how a president's early days have gone, and that to me is perfectly all right. But these benchmarks are silly."

David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama, calls the 100th day a made-up "Hallmark holiday" and has dismissed it as an old Washington custom of evaluating administrations. Nonetheless, the White House scheduled a presidential visit to St. Louis and a prime-time news conference to mark the occasion.

In March 2001, President George W. Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove, and chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., summoned presidential historians to the White House to ask how best to present the commander in chief's record over the first 100 days, recalled one of the historians, Fred I. Greenstein of Princeton. They were "asking about the hokey 100-days stories," Greenstein said.

President John F. Kennedy was wary of being critiqued for his first 100 days. In his 1961 inaugural address, he outlined an ambitious agenda but warned: "All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."

Goodwin, who has written about Kennedy's presidency, said that even as a candidate he chafed against the 100-day barometer. "There was a time during the campaign when he had a draft of a speech in which he put out all the goals," she said. "He slashed out the '100 days' and said: 'Make it 1,000. I don't want to be up against that mark.' But, of course, the 1,000 days would mark his life."

Within his first three months in office, for instance, Kennedy ordered the U.S. invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, which was widely regarded as a foreign policy mistake. "You wouldn't want to judge the Kennedy presidency on the basis of the Bay of Pigs alone," Wilentz said.

Still, historians said, the 100th day offers the frenetic Obama administration a moment to pause.

"The pace of life in the White House is such that you often don't get the chance to reflect on what's going on because you're moving from one crisis to another," Goodwin said. "So to the extent that we've got this marker, it may allow the people in the White House to be able to think about why the things that worked went well and how can we improve them and, where we made mistakes, how can we avoid doing them again."

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