One Hundred Days. The phrase rolls easily, pausing just long enough to sound as though it means something. President Obama’s first Hundred Days has been compared to FDR by many commentators, most of whom found something where the new President was worthy of comparison. It’s been a fun exercise, but what does it mean?
The first question is where the idea of 100 Days came from. It didn’t originate with FDR, but with Napoleon. The Emperor of France returned from forced exile on Elba to find that France was beat down bad. He rallied his troops, and found them eager to take on another campaign. As the enemies of France gathered their forces, Napoleon worked for one last victory.
It didn’t happen. He was cornered at Waterloo, Belgium and forced into exile further away, on St. Helena. It was a little too far to stage another return and his career ended there. It was 100 days from his return to his defeat, 100 Days to play out one last chance. To the end of his days, Napoleon would lament just what he did wrong on those magical 100 Days.
Why did FDR choose the same length of time? It has never been recorded just why FDR chose 100 Days to prove himself, but we can be sure that he knew his history. When he spoke of 100 Days he certainly knew of Napoleon’s return from exile. Was this one last chance for the American system? One last chance for FDR? We don’t know. What we do know is that FDR set up a standard that he knew was a vital challenge and probably felt was achievable.
No matter what, FDR did a lot more with 100 Days than Napoleon was able to. Working closely with Congress, the entire New Deal was outlined, the banks stabilized with the FDIC, and faith in the nation was restored. They weren’t out of the woods yet, but people generally believed there was a capable commander in charge of things. It was a start, a good start, but nothing more.
In fact, it was a good enough start that we still celebrate the first 100 Days of a presidency as a significant milestone. Every president is compared to FDR for a short while before we all go back to complaining about just about everything. It’s a strange exercise because from all I can tell, FDR was exercising what he thought was some kind of last chance. Why else would he make the comparison to Napoleon?
I don’t think for a second that President Obama has seen his one last chance to save the nation; I’ve stayed away from the 100 Days analysis for just this reason. But when I see something become so cultural that it picks up a meaning far beyond it’s original intent, I have to say something. The comparisons with FDR have been pretty rich on their own simply because they show that our state of Depression is being accepted as a fact. Going just a bit deeper, where the 100 Days are a first last chance, shows something about what we expected from Obama.
Now that the 100 Days stuff is over, we can get back to serious business. Like, what are we going to do about the Duke of Wellington’s forces in Belgium?
I find it interesting how we currently are so fixated on exactly the 100 day mark. FDR’s initial New Deal rush ended with the second Glass-Steagall Act passed June 16, 1933 (day 104) which gave us the FDIC. Napoleon’s “100 days” was actually 92 if you count from the time he returned to Paris or 112 if you start form his return to the French mainland. We seem to have a need for nice, round numbers.
No President since FDR has been able to measure up from the sheer fact that none since has had as dramatic a situation to deal with–that is a situation as personally dramatic to a large portion of Americans as the Great Depression was.
President Obama has a similar national situation to deal with, but will suffer from the fact that many politicians these days seem more concerned with getting re-elected than in getting the job done.
Pingback: New Deal « Barataria – the work of Erik Hare