With the first anniversary of the historic election of President Obama, a good deal of interest has emerged in the media about what achievements the President can point to now that he has passed this historic milestone. Certainly the President deserves credit for passing the stimulus bill, stabilizing the financial markets and moving health care reform closer to realization. He also deserves credit for inspiring a new generation of Americans to take up community service through the Serve America Act and for opening up the government to greater transparency. But as this year draws to a close his critics fear that he may fall short on a host of issues from the environment to Guantanamo. Even his vehement promise to pass a health care reform bill within his first year in office now seems suspect, leading to a growing sense of unease among the electorate about his ultimate ability to deliver the change he promised during the campaign.
One way to gauge how President Obama is doing is compare his accomplishments with those of Franklin Roosevelt one year after his historic election in 1932. After all, both leaders also took office in the midst of a global economic crisis that left the US economy in shambles, nor should forget that both leaders assumed power having to face a pernicious evil abroad. In FDR’s case, fascism in Europe and Asia; in Obama’s, a religiously based extremist ideology committed to acts of terror as well as on-going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There is no question that on the domestic/economic front, no President has accomplished more or is ever likely to accomplish more than FDR did in his first year in office. In his first 100 days alone, for example, FDR successfully brought an abrupt end to a paralytic banking crisis; established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; initiated major financial reform through the Glass-Steagall Act’s separation of commercial and investment banking; employed 100s of thousands of idle young men and launched our nation’s first truly green jobs program in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); rescued millions of homes and farms from foreclosure through the establishment of the Home Owners Loan Corporation and the passage of the Farm Credit Act; launched our nation’s first major public utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA); and began the process of building the economic infrastructure of the country through such programs as the Public Works Administration.
In the area of foreign policy, however, FDR not only accomplished much less, but in fact established something of a negative image abroad through his decision to focus on domestic as opposed to foreign policy issues and more specifically though his decision to reject a temporary currency stabilization agreement that had been worked out among British, American and other officials at the 1933 World Economic Conference in London. The one foreign policy accomplishment that Roosevelt could point to in 1933 was his recognition of the Soviet Union-a move which hinted at FDR’s early awareness of the need to counter Japan’s growing power in Asia, but which was also in keeping with his focus on a domestic economic recovery as the USSR was seen as a potential market for surplus American goods.
President Obama’s foreign policy challenges in his first year have been much more daunting than FDR’s and he deserves credit for bringing about a significant improvement in the overall US position in the world through improved relations with Russia, the European Community, the United Nations and even our closest friend and ally, Canada.
He has also stuck to his promise to reduce America’s presence in Iraq and focus instead on the conflict in Afghanistan-a move which has not been easy as the true cost of such an effort has finally been brought home to an American public that to date has largely ignored this conflict-and he has been much more engaged in the international effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Indeed, unlike FDR, who thanks to the nature of the threat and the mood of the country at the time did not have to confront fascism head on during his first year, President Obama has had to deal with major foreign policy issues since day one. And while the wars he inherited may not be popular, he has yet to make a major misstep in either conflict and has instead chosen to act deliberatively and cautiously, which is itself is a significant accomplishment given the newness of his administration and the war weariness of the public.
On balance then, it seems reasonable to argue that in the area of foreign policy, President Obama has easily exceeded FDR’s record for his first year in office. Given the unprecedented nature of the economic crisis that FDR inherited, and the unprecedented response of both the Roosevelt Administration and Congress, it also seems reasonable to argue that no President-Obama included-is ever likely to match the domestic legislative record that was achieved in 1933. But FDR did much more than pass flurry of legislation. He committed himself and his government to real reform and in the process restored the faith of the American people in their government and in the democratic process. The real question is whether President Obama will be willing and able to do the same.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.