100 Days: Battling the forces of inertia

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated on 4 March 1933. "This
nation asks for action", he said in his inaugural address, and
he answered the call. By the time Congress adjourned on 15 June, he
had sent it fifteen messages and persuaded it to pass fifteen major
pieces of legislation. And they were major. They included the Banking
Act and the Glass-Steagall
, separating commercial and investment banking; the
Agricultural Adjustment Act to establish a policy to save American
farming; and the National Industrial Recovery Act to do the same for
industry. He set up the Tennessee
Valley Authority
and sponsored an international financial
conference, passed numerous reforms of the mortgage industry and took
the United States off the gold standard.Godfrey Hodgson was director
of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before
that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and
foreign editor of the Independent.

These were the famous "hundred days", in the course of
which Roosevelt saved American capitalism and - some would say -
saved American democracy as well. The period set a standard by which the wisdom and effectiveness of future presidents was to be

In 1961, media judgment of the achievements of John F
Kennedy's first hundred days in office was harsh (and the president
was no less self-critical). He had been far from inactive. But his
successes were seen as having been cancelled out by the catastrophic
failure of his attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba.
Kennedy, asked how he liked being president, answered wryly that he
had liked it better before the Bay
of Pigs

Even JFK's humiliation could not compare with the original hundred
days, which measured the interval between Napoleon's escape from
exile on the island of Elba and his decisive defeat at Waterloo.

approaches the end of his first hundred days in office with
a record that lies somewhere between those of Roosevelt and Napoleon.
He has been as active as FDR; avoided any disasters; and has
certainly not met his Waterloo. This is, then, a good moment to
assess how he has performed so far in terms of what he wants to
achieve, and what his supporters expect from him.

In the world's eye

For President Obama to do better than his predecessor
internationally was always going to be easy. For George W Bush
was disliked by huge
numbers of the world's people, and an even larger proportion of their
leaders; indeed, the degree of loathing exceeded that visited on
almost any other American president.

But Obama has not just basked in the widespread relief at his arrival in the White House; he has also acted well. He said on
his first day in office that he would close the Guantánamo
prison camp, and is working on it; within a few more days he had
struck the note the world wanted to hear on Iraq, on torture and on
climate change.

His meetings in Europe and Turkey for a series of summits on 2-7
April 2009, and in Trinidad & Tobago for the Summit
of the Americas
on 17-19 April, were an almost unqualified
success. People everywhere liked and trusted him. (The one partial
exception was his urging the European Union to accept Turkey as a
member: the reaction in Washington if France's Nicolas Sarkozy were
to urge the United States to accept Mexico as the fifty-first state!)

Only gradually has it emerged that while Obama may understand the
world's anger at the Bush administration's hubris and rudeness, his
own foreign
in many ways is set to continue the established themes of
American policy. He might be ready to draw down US forces in Iraq;
but only to send more to Afghanistan. He might have appointed
excellent regional special envoys - Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell, Dennis Ross; but with no
expectation of dramatic progress in their areas of responsibility.

Obama's public demeanour may be hugely welcomed across the world. But the US under his leadership will still pursue
many of America's great-power goals. The fist might open into a
handshake, but his remains a project for a new - if less aggressive -
American century.

In the domestic arena

At home, as the hundred days end on 29 April 2009, President
Obama's record is even more ambiguous. No one doubts his determination to drag the
American economy out of the quagmire. Many doubt whether his
administration (studded as it is on the financial side with those
most associated with the policies that caused the trouble in the
first place) knows how to do the job.

Equally, no one doubts the sincerity of his reform agenda. But
many doubt whether, given the slowdown of the economy and the
ballooning of the budget deficit, he will be able to advance his
social and environmental goals: introducing universal healthcare
insurance, investing on a significant scale in public education, and
reducing America's dependence on imported energy.

Only a fool, said JP
, would "go a bear" on the United States.
But a very large number of fools did "go a bull" on a scale
that has come close to ruining the world's strongest single economy
(and thus, in a globalised economy, to ruining everyone else's). 

Indeed, what President Obama's first hundred days illustrate is
the limited ability of the American presidency to respond to the
country's real needs. The glamour, the excitement and the appeal of
the US presidency were graphically on view at the inauguration on 20 January - but almost immediately the limitations of
presidential power were apparent.

This is highlighted by the fact that key offices in the treasury
remained unfilled for weeks at the height of the worst financial crisis since the early 1930s - because a constitutional provision requires high offices to be subject to the advice and
consent of the Senate, ensuring a slow process at the best of times.

It is also clear in the president's difficult relationship with
Congress. The legislative process in the House of Representatives
(which controls money bills) is encrusted with the new system of
"earmarks" and other special interests that tread close to
the borders of corruption. In the Senate, an administration's
need (thanks to comparatively new conventions) to in effect win
three-fifths of the votes to pass legislation makes the process
lengthier. In both chambers, the committee system - cumbersome and
exposed to special-interest lobbying - is now closer than ever
to paralysis. 

The problems are compounded by the fact that among the many
high-minded people in Congress, there are few towering figures. In
part, this is because the public sees the political system as
dominated by presidential will and presidential action - an illusion
that the media (and especially) television has reinforced. The
president is portrayed as dynamic, the Congress and other
institutional rivals as bumbling. The use of phrases such as
"commander-in-chief" and "leader of the free world"
for the president, contrasted with the supposed parochialism and
self-interest of senators and congressmen, further exaggerates the

In the balance

Already, as the hundred days come to an end, older political
realities have reasserted itself. The forces of inertia look
heavier than ever. The Obama administration acted with decisiveness
and energy to recapitalise the banks. The bankers simply took
this as an opportunity to strengthen their balance-sheets and keep paying themselves
bonuses. The country's manufacturing industry is in such a poor shape
that Fiat is seen as a potential saviour for both Chrysler and General Motors. The faint signs of revival on
Wall Street contrast with the bleak outlook on Main Street, where
real-estate values continue to fall and unemployment continues to
rise (see "Barack
Obama: end of the beginning
", 30 March 2009). 

When I travelled across the United States at the time of the
inauguration to discuss The
Myth of American Exceptionalism
[Yale University Press,
2009] - a book that is very critical of aspects of American
democracy - I was constantly asked how I could say such things when
America had just elected Barack Obama. My reply was two-fold: that
the double task of reforming the inequalities and the inefficiencies
of American society while rescuing an imploded financial system
seemed almost beyond the strength even of the strongest president;
and that in any case the presidency did not now have the powers or the influence it would need to complete this task.

The presidency, after all, was far from all-powerful even in
Franklin Roosevelt's day. FDR complained that getting the Washington
government, and especially the US navy, to do what the president
wanted was like punching a pillow. In All
Things to All Men: The False Promise of the Modern America Presidency
(1980), I showed in detail how Roosevelt had responded to
challenges as frightening as those confronting Barack Obama by using
a range of instruments - the Congress, the Democratic Party, the
permanent government, and the press and radio - to lessen his
isolation within the constitutional system. "By the end of his
twelve years in the White House", I wrote, "the temporary
shift in the balance of power between the President and the
Congress resulting from then dramatic initiatives of the Hundred Days
had become the way Washington worked."

"For all that", I went on, "he had done nothing to
change the rules of the game. He had simply shown how it was possible
to win most of the time. In so doing, he had greatly heightened
expectations - both in Congress and in the nation - of what his
successors would be able to accomplish". FDR's presidential
domination is not the way Washington works today.

The fact that Roosevelt was president during a period of
unprecedented crisis at home and abroad may have strengthened his
authority as well as testing it, yet this still did not permit a
permanent change. The six decades since Roosevelt's death have
seen all of his successors, several of them men of great force of
character and formidable political skill, fail to make the
system work as well as he did.

Harry Truman, working with the presidency as Roosevelt had left it
to him, did as well as anyone. Dwight
D Eisenhower
did better, as historians now recognise, than his liberal critics thought at the time. Both
John Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson, activist Democratic presidents,
complained vociferously of their powerlessness and railed against the
constraints of the system.

After them, the president's situation became even harder. Richard
M Nixon was driven from office amid scandal. Gerald Ford and
Jimmy Carter were derided, then defeated. Ronald
came to the White House announcing that government was the
problem, not the solution, a belief that did nothing to make
government more effective. George HW Bush was an excellent
foreign-policy president, but unsuccessful at home and defeated in a
re-election bid. Bill Clinton only narrowly avoided ejection and George W Bush became a model of unpopularity.

If the American president has (as the textbooks say) to perform
the roles both of an elected monarch and a consecrated prime
minister, the record of the past two generations suggests that the
monarchical attributes of the office have fared better than its
administrative and political fortunes.

Barack Obama has in his first three months confirmed his
possession of formidable political skills. The question must be
whether they will be enough to help him transcend the very real
constraints and weaknesses of what is constantly, but inaccurately,
described as the most powerful office in the world. 

Godfrey Hodgson's most recent book is The
Myth of American Exceptionalism
(Yale University
Press, 2009). This article has been reproduced from the
openDemocracy website under a Creative Commons license. 


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