WASHINGTON – Franklin D. Roosevelt looms large in the minds and hearts of Democrats across the United States as the greatest president in modern American history.
Amidst the Depression of the 1930s, exclaiming in his first inaugural speech that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” Roosevelt proceeded to rally American spirits and to transform the role of government-business relations through a bold and historic state-led action plan.
In his first 100 days, Roosevelt passed 76 laws, focused on reviving the U.S. economy through public works projects that ultimately employed over 8 million people, built 1,000 airports, brought electric lights to America’s countryside, gave birth to the social security program, and spearheaded conservation projects nationwide.
Joe Biden, like John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama before him, has often evoked the “first 100 days” symbolism of FDR. Early in the 2020 campaign, he set a national goal of assuring “100 million vaccinations” in his “first 100 days in office,” doubling that goal recently to 200 million vaccinations against COVID-19, in the same 100 days.
With vaccinations in the United States recently running 3-4 million daily, Biden’s seemingly ambitious goal will likely be achieved.
The struggle against COVID-19 is clearly one central hallmark of Biden’s first 100 days. And he seems to be succeeding — arguably better than Europe, Latin America, and indeed most other nations, following the chaos and tragic inaction, apart from successful vaccine development, of Trump’s pandemic response.
New COVID-19 cases in the United States fell by more than 50% during Biden’s first three months in office, due partially to the rapid progress of vaccination.
Early highlights of Roosevelt’s first 100 days, as noted above, included aid to the unemployed, and an augmented social security system, just emerging in his day.
Social welfare amidst economic chaos was also an early focal point for Biden. Just days after his inauguration, Biden proposed the Cares Act, a $1.9 trillion economic support program providing $1,400 per person to lower-income Americans that was enacted by Congress within weeks.
Just before the 2020 Presidential election, Biden visited Roosevelt’s Little White House, in Warm Springs, Georgia, where FDR, crippled early in life by polio, often went for solace and rest.
There Biden, himself devastated while Vice President by his son’s untimely death, observed movingly that “though broken, each of us can be healed,” and broadened his earlier “struggle against COVID virus” theme, to figuratively include healing America’s broken infrastructure, as Roosevelt had also once done.
Public works spending has been a third dimension of Biden’s first 100 days closely retracing FDR’s initiatives nearly nine decades ago.
In late March, Biden unveiled a massive $2 trillion infrastructure program, with a pronounced social welfare orientation that, while controversial, was once again evocative of the New Deal.
His proposal included $621 billion for conventional physical infrastructure — bridges, roads, airports, seaports, public transit and charging stations for electric vehicles.
There was $300 billion for expanding internet access and upgrading electric power grids. Yet there was also well over $1 trillion for retrofitting public schools and public housing; care for elderly Americans and job training efforts.
Roosevelt achieved major infrastructural changes in the face of America that began with his first 100 days, culminating in the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Skyline Drive along the Appalachians, the Triborough Bridge in New York City and Grand Coolee Dam across the Columbia River, as productive symbols of his reforming vision that remain to this day.
Roosevelt, however, enjoyed a massive 58-38 majority in the U.S. Senate to pass his legislation through Congress. Biden confronts a 50-50 stalemate and unified Republican opposition, making any Democratic defections costly, and even in the best cases forcing Vice President Kamala Harris to break the resulting tie.
As a result, Biden will struggle to ensure his legacy, especially beyond his first 100 days, making international support all the more important.
For Biden, foreign policy is thus arguably a more vital element of his first 100 days than it was for Roosevelt, especially given the heavy global interdependence of the 21st century.
In his first week in office, Biden returned the United States to the COP-21 global climate accord and reactivated America’s participation in the World Health Organization. He offered American contributions to COVAX, the international vaccination facility. His most important 100 days foreign-policy contribution, however, is clearly in the Indo-Pacific.
Together with the leaders of Japan, Australia and India, Biden in mid-March convened the first virtual summit of a re-invigorated four-party grouping of major trans-Pacific powers known as the “Quad.”
The summit endorsed both intensified security cooperation and also greatly expanded production in India of U.S.-origin anti-COVID vaccines, financed in substantial measure by Japan, with logistical support from Australia.
It was followed by Biden’s first international visitor to the Oval Office, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan and the announcement of expanded U.S.-Japan initiatives to compete with China’s Belt and Road.
Biden’s first 100 days have thus been eventful ones. Strong prospects of vaccinating 200 million Americans before those days are finished at the end of April.
The largest stimulus program, in financial terms, in American history. Return to multilateralism, in an era of interdependence. And a reaffirmation of U.S.-Japan relations. That complex outcome Roosevelt could not achieve, in his very different world, but it stands as a foundation on which Biden and his team can and must build in months to come.
Kent E. Calder is vice dean for faculty affairs and international research cooperation at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at SAIS.
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