WASHINGTON — Joe Biden idolized John F. Kennedy growing up, endorsed Jimmy Carter as a young senator, and scored some of his most significant legislative accomplishments working with Bill Clinton. His service as Barack Obama’s vice president ultimately helped propel him to the White House. But the Democratic president who has most shaped his first 100 days in office is the one who first popularized that benchmark for judging an administration’s success: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The nation’s 46th president turned to the example of its 32nd at a key moment in the 2020 campaign, close advisers told NBC News. Just as Biden emerged as the Democratic Party’s likely nominee, a nation he had already cast as being engaged in a battle for its soul was faced with an additional reckoning: the pandemic and its economic fallout.
And so, even as he ramped up campaigning in the general election, Biden was carving out time to study his would-be predecessor, reading or rereading titles like Jean Edward Smith’s “FDR” and Jonathan Alter’s study of Roosevelt's first 100 days, “The Defining Moment.”
Long a student of history, and of a favorite poem that proposes “hope and history rhyme,” Biden was particularly focused on how Roosevelt tailored his response to the economic crisis of the Great Depression with an eye toward an even bigger threat to the nation.
“He would look to be informed on a president who had faced a significant crisis, and a crisis both in terms of the pain in the country, but also questions about the democracy,” Mike Donilon, one of the president’s closest and longest-serving advisers, said in an interview. “Obviously, what he's facing is different. And he's put his own stamp on how to deal with it.”
'D-Day' for democracy
As Biden tasked close advisers with setting up a presidential transition last spring, Roosevelt’s opening flurry of legislative and executive actions were studied as a template. And after the election, as they began crafting their $1.9 trillion Covid-19 response bill, they drew on Roosevelt’s prioritization of concrete, tangible policy initiatives that could begin to quickly restore public confidence.
“It was very important for Biden to do things early on that delivered direct benefits to voters, especially people that were struggling,” said Mark Gitenstein, a longtime Biden adviser who helped guide the transition from its earliest days and also closely studied the Roosevelt model. “He had the same approach, that he wanted to demonstrate quick, vigorous action that would have an impact.”
While FDR’s first inaugural is best known for his declaration that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” another line became a mantra for Biden’s team: “This nation is asking for action, and action now.” But other FDR analogies were employed as the planning ramped up, even the notion of the inauguration as a “D-Day” when planning would turn to execution.
While recent presidents had bristled at the 100-day timeline, Biden’s team would embrace it — setting goals for vaccinations and reopening schools that in retrospect seemed unambitious, but were hardly guaranteed at first. Doing so was crucial toward trying to rebuild public confidence after a Trump presidency that only stoked distrust in Washington.
Biden, in an interview with Brené Brown in October, said he was particularly struck by Alter’s description of how perilous the nation’s democratic experiment was as Roosevelt prepared to take office.
“There’s no such thing as a guaranteed democracy. It has to be fought for every time,” Biden said then.
In a conversation with network anchors at the White House on Wednesday, Biden said he repeatedly stressed with his team in his administration’s early days the urgency of passing the Rescue Plan quickly, that they “cannot afford to lose this first effort” with so many people suffering.
“Democracy is under a test, and the test is can democracy still deliver for its people," Donilon said. "That's what he talks about in terms of this battle between autocracies and democracies."
'Straight from the shoulder'
But Biden drew other lessons from Roosevelt, recognizing that as important as policy victories were, Roosevelt set a new course for how presidents could communicate directly, and very personally, with the American people.
As the summer campaign geared up, Biden sought to highlight a key contrast with Trump — unlike his opponent, Biden said, he would emulate FDR by leveling with Americans about the scale of the challenges. “The job of a president is to tell it straight from the shoulder,” he said in a major framing speech ahead of Labor Day in Pittsburgh.
He drew a more explicit connection to Roosevelt in late October as he delivered a closing argument address in Warm Springs, Georgia — where Roosevelt had gone “looking for a cure” from polio, Biden recalled, but instead learned lessons “that he used to lift a nation: humility, empathy, courage, optimism.”
“The story's told that when Franklin Roosevelt's funeral procession went by, a man collapsed in grief and the neighbor asked him, did you know the president? His response was, ‘No,’ the man said, ‘but he knew me,'” Biden recalled. “Few words better describe the kind of president our nation needs right now. A president who is not in it for himself, but for others. A president who doesn't divide us, but unites us.”
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who holds the same Senate seat Biden did for decades, said that for all the historical parallels, it was that personal parallel between Biden and Roosevelt that was serving the nation well now. He recalled the first private meeting he had with Biden in the Oval Office, discussing the proposed Covid-19 relief bill under the watchful eye of a Roosevelt portrait that hangs prominently facing the Resolute Desk.
As his colleague, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., was diving into the details of how benefits should be targeted, Biden stopped him and offered his own simple metric for who needed relief: a struggling middle-class family in Claymont, Delaware.
“I don't think he believes in himself as a transformational leader. I think he believes in the average middle American,” Coons said. “The most important tool he has brought to meeting the moment is believing in that family in Claymont — if he just gives them a quick leg up, just something to stand up, just a chance … everything else will work out.”
The historical view
As was clear in Biden’s first address to Congress on Wednesday, making progress in his first 100 days was seen as essential to build momentum for the next 100, and the rest that follow. Alter, in an interview, highlighted the similarities between FDR's push ahead with the New Deal, and its focus on “Relief, Recovery and Reform,” with Biden’s pivot now from the American Rescue Plan to his “Building Back Better” economic proposals.
“You build momentum and credibility so that you have a fighting chance at reform,” Alter said.
But Biden has a long way to go to meeting FDR’s standard, he said.
“Roosevelt was president for 12 years. So to call Joe Biden a new Roosevelt is premature. But it is not wrong to say that he has had a Rooseveltian 100 days,” he said. “His debut in the presidency is reminiscent of Roosevelt’s debut in his ability to connect with the country, convey empathy, make people feel like the end is no longer nigh, and that we can get back to what we do best.”