On October 22nd, 2016, Donald J Trump released his 100-Day Action Plan to Make America Great Again. In his Contract with the American Voter candidate Trump promised to promote no fewer than 10 major pieces of legislation that included everything from the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), to a major overhaul of the US tax code and "to fight for their passage within the first 100 days of his administration". In the weeks and months that followed, Trump continued to tout his ability to get things done, promising on numerous occasions that his first 100 days would be unlike any other. It turns out Trump's first 100 days are unique, but for reasons he would probably now prefer the public to ignore, as Congress, under his leadership, has yet to pass a single major piece of legislation.
Trump now dismisses the 100-day concept as “a ridiculous standard”. But given his many promises, and the deep frustration with Washington among the millions of Americans who voted for him, his rejection of this historic benchmark may prove profoundly damaging to his political and legislative standing in the months and years ahead.
When Franklin D Roosevelt took the oath of office on March 4th, 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, he also promised the American public action. Indeed, even though the most famous line from FDR's first inaugural was his counsel that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself", this was not the phrase that received the greatest applause. It was when FDR exclaimed in ringing tones, "This nation is asking for action, and action now" that the crowd delivered its most thunderous response.
And no wonder. Riveted by a profound sense of uncertainty fuelled by the collapse of the US banking and financial system and a nationwide unemployment rate of 25 per cent, the American people were ready for action, and action they got, as FDR – America’s first and only paralysed president – got down to the task of lifting a paralysed nation off its knees.
Over the course of the following few months, during what one astute observer noted as the first 100 days of FDR’s tenure, US Congress passed no fewer than 15 major pieces of legislation, a record that no president has ever come close to matching.
What makes this achievement even more remarkable is that many of the reforms instigated by the "emergency legislation" passed in this frantic period lasted for decades, and some are with us still. The Emergency Banking and Glass-Steagall Acts, for example, recapitalised America's banks, created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and separated commercial from investment banking as a means to protect small businesses and homeowners from the vagaries of the stock market. The FDIC continues to protect the savings of American depositors, and the firewall drawn between commercial and investment banking added a further layer of protection – that is until Congress did away with this distinction in 1999 through the Graham-Leach Act, a move which many economists argue contributed to the disastrous housing bubble that brought on the Great Recession of 2008.
Other significant pieces of legislation passed during FDR's first 100 days included the creation of the Home Owner's Loan Corporation, a federal loan institution that would go on to refinance roughly 20 per cent of all the urban mortgages in the US thereby revolutionising standard home loan practices in the process. Another was the launch of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation's first public utility, providing jobs, inexpensive electricity, and flood control to vast stretches of the poverty-stricken south. There was the formation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the nation's first "green jobs" programme, which put hundreds of thousands of the urban unemployed to work replanting America's decimated forests. And not forgetting the Truth in Securities Act, which demanded transparency in the sale of stocks and other securities, and pointed the way towards the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission a year later.
Farmers and manufacturers
Congress also passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act to help rescue the nation's farmers by providing agricultural subsidies, and the National Industrial Recovery Act to help restore America's failing manufacturing sector through the instigation of wage and price guidelines and other regulations, and through the creation of the Public Works Administration (PWA).
Between 1933 and 1939, the PWA funded more than 34,000 infrastructure projects, including airports, major hydroelectric power facilities like the Grand Coulee Dam, over 7,000 new schools, hundreds of hospitals and thousands of miles of new roads.
But the most significant accomplishment of FDR’s first 100 days is that it restored the American people’s faith in government and in their democratic institutions at the very time when economic hardship in other parts of the world led to the rise of fascism and other anti-democratic regimes. What drove FDR and his Democratic and Republican Congressional allies to pursue this ambitious agenda was their conviction that “human welfare is the first and final task of government”.
Although today’s social and economic problems may not be as profound as those America faced in the early 1930s, thanks in large part to the social safety net established during the Roosevelt era, the dangers emanating from the loss of faith in the ability of the US government to govern responsibly is certainly as dangerous as the pernicious mood that gripped the country on the eve of FDR’s first inaugural.
It is for this reason that Trump’s dismissal of the first 100 days as ridiculous may prove so damaging. If the president and the Republican leadership in Congress are truly interested in governing, then they will have to take a lesson from the 1930s and learn to work with their Democratic colleagues.
After all, it was the Republican Party’s absolute refusal to compromise with president Barack Obama, even on such measures as the modest jobs programme he tried to pass in 2011, that is largely responsible for the dismal reputation that Washington has earned among a large section of the American public.
To rectify this situation, President Trump and his colleagues in Congress would do well to abandon their political posturing and recognise what FDR saw all those years ago; that “this nation is asking for action and action now”.
David B Woolner is senior fellow of the Roosevelt Institute, professor of history at Marist College, and the 2016-2017 Mary Ball Washington Professor of American History at University College Dublin