As President Barack Obama moves past his first 100 days, polls show him with historic job approval ratings. Even more, they show a country that likes its president and is beginning to feel better about itself. Other presidents and national leaders have been similarly “popular,” but those we remember understood that a bond with people in perilous times allows them to take greater risks and act boldly to bring change.
That is why we look to FDR’s first 100 days. Franklin Roosevelt, too, came to office with deep popular support and a bond with the common people: President Hoover could handle his correspondence with the American people with one secretary, but in Roosevelt’s first week, he received personal notes from 460,000 people. The notes no doubt piled up in the offices of Congress as well, and members rushed to support the president in passing his initiatives. Later in the decade, when Roosevelt determined that he wanted to remilitarize and move America to support Britain against Germany, he drew on that relationship with people to get them to reconsider what was previously unthinkable and ultimately to support his policy. At the time, fully 60 percent of the country opposed getting involved in a European war, but Roosevelt devoted his fireside chats to the need to support Britain, using private Gallup polls conducted before and after the chats to judge his ability to persuade and build support for this historic decision. That support was so strong, it pressured the Congress to move the country in a new direction, and the legislature enacted the lend lease program for military supplies to Britain.
In my book Dispatches from the War Room, I write about other bold leaders, like Israel’s Ehud Barak, who got the public to reconsider a total peace agreement with the Palestinians that would divide Jerusalem. Before he started a process of national deliberation, two-thirds of the Israeli public was opposed to such an agreement. Only a month after his efforts began, a majority supported it.
Obama’s 100-day clock began with his inauguration – captured less by his speech and more by the crowd gathered along the Mall, past the Washington Monument to the tidal basin. More than any president in recent years, Obama comes to office elevated by civil society – new voters and small donors, a massive primary turnout and social networking. There is every reason to believe President Obama understands the moment and the political capital of popular support. His $787 billion economic recovery plan – enacted by the Congress in only one month – was unimaginable months earlier, but so too was his decision to leave the Washington negotiations to travel to Elkhart, Indiana, Fort Myers, Florida, and Denver, Colorado to rally support for the plan. While media pundits complained about the “permanent” campaign, the move signaled that Obama’s popular support could increase pressure for bold action.
Now, Congress is enacting a bold budget that rebalances the tax code and prepares the country to address health care, energy independence and global warming, and education in new ways and with new investments. I am in no position to judge whether they are bold enough to deal with the economic crisis and get back to real growth, but I suspect the president draws heavily on the example of FDR, who was continually innovative and returned often to the well of popular support.