Many in the country are in a skittish mood, as Donald Trump gets ready to take office. Nobody really knows what this anti-politician with a hair-trigger temper will do in his first 100 days, traditionally when presidents accomplish the most.
Believe it or not, these days are almost as scary as the spring of 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office, a time historians consider the gold standard of presidential transitions.
On the surface, comparing the seasoned, reassuring FDR with the erratic, caustic Trump might seem a folly: Roosevelt was a liberal Democrat while Trump’s seemingly a right-wing Republican. One had an impressive political resume and served as a popular governor of New York, the other draws on business experience and hosted a reality TV show. FDR excelled at uniting people while even Trump supporters admit their man can be divisive.
But there are similarities that go beyond their New York connection. Reading Jonathan Alter’s great book The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope helps set the context. It doesn’t take long to for the reader to realize how terrified people were about the transition from the hapless Herbert Hoover during the height of the Great Depression to the progressive Democrat. Many people pulled money out of their banks, leading FDR to act like a real-life George Bailey, trying to prevent bank runs. His bank holiday from March 6-13, 1933 and subsequent efforts to insure depositor funds were key to preventing panic.
We don’t face a fourth year of a Great Depression as Americans did back then. But fear still influenced many votes in the 2016 election. Overwhelming majorities of Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters contended that fear of the other candidate winning drove their vote choice, according to a USA Today/Suffolk Poll taken during the election. Post-election polls from the Pew Research Center showed overwhelming majorities of those who did not vote for Trump feel uneasy, sad, and outright scared. There are also concerns about whether Trump can handle the job. CBS News released polls showing voters are generally skeptical about whether Trump will do well, scoring much lower than George W. Bush right after the 2000 election.
Trump should highlight and prioritize plans to rebuild infrastructure, which could achieve bipartisan support.
Alter also delves into FDR’s personality. Surprisingly, like Trump, FDR also craved flattery. While FDR fawned over the press, Trump does the same for his supporters, though he shows much disdain for reporters.
Other presidential scholars notice more surprising similarities between FDR and Trump. Dr, Rafael Medoff with The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies writes “In their attitudes toward foreigners and immigration, they had more in common than is generally realized.” He documents FDR’s xenophobic policies on refugees, controversial comments about foreigners, and limits on migration to the United States.
In Julian Adorney’s article in The Federalist, “The Uncanny Parallels Between Donald Trump And FDR”, he points out that both presidents prefer big government solutions to economic problems, and also called for enhanced surveillance power to deal with potential domestic threats. “In May 1940, he [FDR] warned of a “fifth column” in America (a military term for civilian rebels) and claimed refugees might be agents” Adorney explains. In addition to seeking limits on the influx of refugees, Adorney argues that neither FDR nor Trump seem very supportive of the separation of powers, preferring action over gridlock, offering up examples of Roosevelt’s executive orders and court-packing plan.
The Best Presidential Transition
Ever since FDR’s legendary first 100 days, subsequent presidents have had to live up to his confident demeanor and flurry of activist programs with acronyms (AAA, CCC, TVA etc…) that stemmed the Great Depression. Since Gallup Polling first started asking the question back in 1953, we have a pretty good idea of which presidents have appealed to the public after the first 100 days.
You’d think Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama would have the strongest approval ratings, given that both won more than 50 percent of the vote twice. But neither makes the top three for most popular presidents after the first 100 days. That honor goes to John F. Kennedy (74 percent average), followed by Dwight D. Eisenhower (71 percent average), and Jimmy Carter (69 percent average). Obama is next at 63 percent, followed by Nixon (62 percent), then Reagan (60 percent). The lowest ratings go to both Bushes (Bush Jr. at 58 percent, Bush Sr. one point less, 57 percent) and Bill Clinton (55 percent).
Lessons For Our New President
Trump can learn from FDR and other presidents. Trump should highlight and prioritize plans to rebuild infrastructure (similar to FDR’s PWA and NRA) which could achieve bipartisan support. That move would calm some of the jitters of those fearing Trump.
Second, keep the direct lines of communication with the public open, but realize that FDR didn’t win four terms by dividing the nation. Many of his controversial comments were generally kept quiet, as Medoff and Adorney discovered. Find ways to develop common ground with a wider number of people. For instance, a vast majority of Americans support paid parental leave, a policy Trump touted during his campaign. Pushing legislation as president could disarm some opponents.
Third, Trump should learn from FDR’s mistakes regarding separation of powers. Even some Republicans won’t like Trump’s executive orders any more than Democrats in Congress enjoyed FDR’s slew of executive orders. Business executives don’t always have to deal with other institutions than have checks and balances, but government differs from corporations. Respecting boundaries should increase one’s chances at reelection.
Finally, remember that Clinton won two terms with the lowest support after 100 days, but Carter, the third most popular after 100 days, was a one-termer.
An administration’s first 100 days isn’t the only indicator of how popular a president is, or will be. But if history serves as a guide, Trump can learn from FDR’s vaunted transition, avoid the mistakes and, perhaps, craft a successful political career.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.