FDR's New Deal: Lessons For Obama

Since Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, the first benchmark of every new presidency is 100 days. Much like Roosevelt, President Obama has big plans for his first 100, but historians still debate the extent to which the New Deal got the United States out of the Depression.

Guests:

Jonathan Alter, author of The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, senior editor and columnist for Newsweek

Amity Shlaes, author of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, senior fellow in economic history at the Council of Foreign Relations

Taking Lessons From FDR's First 100 Days

Franklin D. Roosevelt deliverd his first fireside chat on the banking crisis on March 12, 1933. i i

Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his first fireside chat on the banking crisis from the White House on March 12, 1933. Courtesy FDR Presidential Library and Museum hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy FDR Presidential Library and Museum
Franklin D. Roosevelt deliverd his first fireside chat on the banking crisis on March 12, 1933.

Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his first fireside chat on the banking crisis from the White House on March 12, 1933.

Courtesy FDR Presidential Library and Museum

As the start of the first 100 days of the Obama administration approaches, more visitors than expected have been making their way to Hyde Park. Not the neighborhood in Chicago, Obama's hometown, but Hyde Park, N.Y., the former home of the 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Most people come to Hyde Park to see Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's home — as well as the gravesite, the library and the museum. But the most popular current exhibit is about FDR's first 100 days. And when the exhibit was planned more than a year ago, no one could have predicted its current relevance.

In the first room of the exhibit, photographs and film footage depict the Great Depression: soup kitchens, hungry farm children, people waiting in line. FDR came into office in March 1933 at the low point of the Depression. Unemployment was approaching 25 percent and another 25 percent of the population could only find part-time work.

Put Money In The Banks

The exhibit's curator, Herman Eberhardt, shows off a room that's set up like a poor person's home with a sink, laundry hanging from a makeshift clothesline — and in the most central place — a radio.

There are chairs, so you can sit in this room and listen to FDR's first fireside chat, which was about the banking crisis.

"Roosevelt used radio right from the beginning of his presidency, in a very effective way, to communicate directly with the public," Eberhardt says.

He urged citizens to have confidence and return their money to the banks.

"I can assure you, my friends, that it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than it is to keep it under the mattress," Roosevelt says in a recording. He adds that "more important than currency, more important than gold," is the confidence of the people themselves. And he tells people not to be "stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear."

Thousands of letters of support were sent to the president after this first fireside chat. One letter said that until that night, the president of the United States "was merely a legend, but you are real." And there are pictures showing thousands of people lining up outside banks to return their money.

What Lead To The New Deal

The exhibit also focuses on the 15 pieces of legislation that were passed in the first 100 days and led to the foundation of the New Deal.

FDR fundamentally changed the relationship between the American people and their government, and between the United States and the world, according to David Woolner, a professor of history at Marist College in nearby Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

"Whether it's banking legislation or Social Security, we live in the house that Roosevelt built," Woolner says. "We have remodeled it, moved the furniture around — but he built the house we live in, and we are still living in it."

Many visitors who walk through this exhibit say they chose this moment to come here because the country is entering a new 100 days when Obama takes reigns.

"It seemed very appropriate," says visitor Tess McKellen.

Shari Reider, who came with her husband, said that because Roosevelt was paralyzed, it made him "so different than what you would expect a president to be, and our new president-elect is also so different than what you would expect a president to be."

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