Wednesday, Jun. 24, 2009

The First 100 Days

March 4, 1933, was perhaps the Great Depression's darkest hour. The stock market had plunged 85% from its high in 1929, and nearly one-fourth of the workforce was unemployed. In the cities, jobless men were lining up for soup and bread. In rural areas, farmers whose land was being foreclosed were talking openly of revolution. The crowd that gathered in front of the Capitol that day to watch Franklin D. Roosevelt's Inauguration had all but given up on America. They were, a reporter observed, "as silent as a group of mourners around a grave."

Roosevelt's Inaugural Address was a pitch-perfect combination of optimism ("The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"), consolation (the nation's problems "concern, thank God, only material things") and resolve ("This nation asks for action, and action now"). The speech won rave reviews. Even the rock-ribbed Republican Chicago Tribune lauded its "dominant note of courageous confidence." F.D.R. had buoyed the spirits of the American people — and nearly 500,000 of them wrote to him at the White House in the following week to tell him so.

Hours after the Inauguration, Roosevelt made history in a more behind-the-scenes way. He gathered his Cabinet in his White House office and had Justice Benjamin Cardozo swear them in as a group, the first time that had ever been done. F.D.R. joked that he was doing it so they could "receive an extra day's pay," but the real reason was that he wanted his team to get to work immediately.

And that team came through brilliantly. In the next 100 days — O.K., 105, but who's counting? — his Administration shepherded 15 major bills through Congress. It was the most intense period of lawmaking ever undertaken by Congress — a "presidential barrage of ideas and programs," historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. observed, "unlike anything known to American history."

During the Hundred Days, F.D.R. took the country in a whole new direction. The 1932 election had been, in the words of President Herbert Hoover, not a "contest between two men" but one between "two philosophies of government." Hoover believed in small government and letting the free market operate. The Federal Government that Hoover presided over was stunningly limited in scope. Its entire budget was — fiscal conservatives, read it and weep — under $4 billion. Even as the U.S. endured the worst depression in its history, Hoover argued that the answers lay in unfettered capitalism and private charity.

Roosevelt, by contrast, insisted that when people could not help themselves, government had to step in, "not as a matter of charity but as a matter of social duty." Roosevelt promised Americans a New Deal, though he was vague about what it would look like. At heart, he was a pragmatist, not an ideologue. During the campaign, he vowed to respond to the Depression with "bold, persistent experimentation." He was open to any ideas that might work.

The immediate crisis involved the banks. Thousands had failed, costing families their life savings. The failures had prompted bank runs: people rushed to take out their money, causing more banks to become insolvent. By March 4, all 48 states had ordered their banks closed. Within days, the Roosevelt Administration drafted an Emergency Banking Act. Congress rushed to pass it, even though there were no finished copies available to read. The new law authorized the Treasury Department to begin reopening the banks when they could prove they were healthy. Barely a week after the Inauguration, the banking system was operating again. Roosevelt's closest aide, Raymond Moley, later said that "capitalism was saved in eight days."

With the banking crisis resolved, Roosevelt was ready to begin rolling out the New Deal. In giving it substance, he got his ideas from the extraordinary men and women of his inner circle. At the urging of Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace, a farmer and farm journalist from Iowa, F.D.R. backed a sweeping farm-relief bill. Prices had fallen so low that it no longer paid for many farmers to plant crops. As a way to prevent the crop surpluses that led to low prices, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) called, for the first time, for the government to pay farmers not to plant.

Critics attacked the proposed law as dangerously radical. (One Republican sniped that the bill was difficult to understand because it had been translated from the original Russian.) But Congress quickly embraced it. By the summer, Wallace's Agriculture Department would be sending out checks to hundreds of thousands of wheat, cotton and corn farmers.

Roosevelt had not planned to keep Congress in special session for 100 days. But as long as it kept enacting his agenda, he seized the opportunity. Frances Perkins, his Secretary of Labor and the first female Cabinet member, pushed for large-scale welfare and public-works programs. Families that fell behind on rent were being thrown out on the street, children were keeling over in school from malnutrition, and once upstanding members of the middle class were foraging for food in garbage dumps. Roosevelt backed a welfare program drawn up by Harry Hopkins, a social worker who became the first federal welfare administrator. Under Hopkins' energetic leadership, in his first day on the job, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) began sending out multimillion-dollar checks to the states.

The initial public-works program was one Roosevelt thought up himself: the Civilian Conservation Corps, which hired more than 250,000 young people to plant trees and fix up national parks. Later in the Hundred Days, F.D.R. signed on to a much larger plan. It allocated $3.3 billion to put unemployed people to work in an array of government jobs across the country. This plan later grew into the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal's signature jobs program.

Roosevelt also imposed the first federal regulations on the stock market. Many Americans believed Wall Street chicanery had caused the Depression. The Truth-in-Securities Act required issuers of new securities to disclose important information. A second banking law, the Glass-Steagall Act, separated investment banking and savings banking. But the last major bill of the Hundred Days, the National Industrial Recovery Act, was a doomed attempt to revive the economy through government-business partnerships. The Supreme Court would soon strike it down, though key parts lived on, including a federal guarantee of workers' right to unionize.

In little more than three months, Roosevelt had done nothing less than create a new America — or, rather, two new Americas. The Hundred Days was the start of the American welfare state. For the first time, the Federal Government assumed responsibility for caring for its worst-off citizens. FERA paved the way for Social Security and unemployment insurance to become law in 1935 and, much later, for programs like Medicare and Medicaid. The Hundred Days also laid the groundwork for the modern regulatory state. A year after the Truth-in-Securities Act was passed, F.D.R. created the Securities and Exchange Commission. Before the New Deal ended, there would be a federal minimum wage and a National Labor Relations Board to protect the rights of workers.

Not all the Hundred Days legislation has survived. The federal welfare program was dismantled in the 1990s, during the Gingrich revolution, and turned into block grants to the states. In 1999, President Bill Clinton signed a repeal of Glass-Steagall's separation of investment and savings banking, possibly paving the way for the current financial meltdown. Other laws from the era have lasted too long, notably the AAA's generous crop subsidies, which were meant to be temporary.

Many aspects of the New Deal remain controversial. Some people argue that the Federal Government should do more for the unemployed, while others believe that government handouts have gone too far. Some want stricter regulations on Wall Street and Big Business, and others want less red tape.

But F.D.R.'s basic idea of an activist government has become a national consensus. That became clear last year when the financial system began teetering. There were few Herbert Hoovers calling for the government to stand idly by. George W. Bush and Barack Obama insisted, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, that the Federal Government had to spend billions to bail out the banks. Their parallel response was proof that 75 years later, the ideals of the Hundred Days have triumphed. In a very real way, we're all New Dealers now. 

Cohen is the author of Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America