Though President Joe Biden is no Roosevelt, he bears some important similarities. And Biden is off to an excellent start — arguably, one of the best since Roosevelt.
The most obvious comparison is of the two presidents’ records of accomplishments. Roosevelt entered office with the economy near collapse and the public mood severely depressed, and he took a series of dramatic steps to reverse course. He not only saved the country’s banks in his first week but helped to pass 15 major pieces of legislation in his first 100 days, building the foundation of the New Deal. On at least one occasion, his team introduced a major new bill in the morning, the Emergency Banking Relief Act, and had it enacted by sundown.
From a deadly pandemic and a stalled economy to a threatening climate and explosive racial tensions, Biden inherited the worst set of crises since Roosevelt and had only the thinnest of democratic margins in Congress. Yet he quickly took charge, too, as he delivered on his vaccine distribution promises, enacted a giant economic relief plan, began a restoration of America’s leadership on climate change and acted as a force for racial justice.
Moreover, Biden has so far managed to avoid a trap awaiting new presidents: a tendency to make big policy mistakes at the very moment when their team is least prepared. An inexperienced John F. Kennedy ordered up the Bay of Pigs, a failed attempt to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, on day 87 of his presidency. And Gerald Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon in his first month of office, failing to prepare the public for a decision that only 38% of the population agreed with at the time.
Both Roosevelt and Biden avoided their traps by relying upon their long personal experiences in navigating Washington, DC, and also by surrounding themselves with top professional advisers.
There are two other similarities between Roosevelt and Biden that have surfaced during these 100 days, and though these are the subject of less scrutiny, in the long term, they may become more important factors. The first is how joyful each man has been in exercising power. On his fifth day in office, Roosevelt visited Oliver Wendell Holmes II to celebrate the Supreme Court justice’s 92nd birthday. After Roosevelt departed, Holmes turned to an aide and said he has “a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.”
It turns out that is a description for success in the American presidency: You don’t need to be a genius — smart and curious works. But you do need to work in concert with others. And you need to love being president — a quality notably lacking in Biden’s predecessor but readily apparent in Biden.
The other quality that both men bring to the table is their inner emotional strength. They each experienced terrible tragedies when they were relatively young. Roosevelt was just 39 when he was diagnosed with polio. Despite years of trying to walk again, he remained disabled from the waist down for the rest of his life. His mother, a powerful force in his life, wanted him to retire from public life, but his wife, Eleanor, argued that he should stay in the political game.
When he was just 30 and preparing to enter the US Senate, Biden lost his wife and young daughter in a car accident. More recently, he lost his beloved son Beau to brain cancer.
In recent years, social scientists have spent time trying to understand how individuals respond to such crucible events in their lives. Psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues have found that victims of such tragedies fall into three groups. A minority of victims never recover; they come unglued and drift unhappily through life. A majority take a nosedive but within a year or two, drawing upon their personal resilience, regain their original footing. A third and final group work hard, call upon their resilience and emerge stronger than before. Importantly, they also embrace a moral purpose in life.
What we see in Roosevelt and in Biden, I would submit, are two people who fall into that third category, emerging stronger than before their tragedies and with a powerful sense of purpose. Roosevelt was known to be callow before he contracted polio. But in his unsuccessful struggle to walk again, he became emotionally attached to others who faced personal tragedies or challenges. Roosevelt was no longer just another politician; Roosevelt was a leader whose central purpose in life was to lift up others.
He loved visiting a therapeutic center in Warm Springs, Georgia, so much that he bought the place and toyed with the idea of leaving politics to run it. He decided to stay in the political fray but visited Warm Springs every year, save one, from 1924 until his death in 1945. It was there that Roosevelt was able both to rehabilitate himself and to meet the local townsfolk. He began to understand and sympathize with the harsh realities of rural life in the Great Depression.
Biden’s story of working through his tragedies is well known to millions of Americans. What is striking is how his suffering has not only made him more empathetic to others who are struggling, but also given him a rare kind of strength, similar to Roosevelt’s. He clearly has an inner steel that stamps him as a man of character and decency. And many Americans want him to succeed. To be frank, I haven’t seen that kind of attraction in a political leader since Ronald Reagan.
Several years ago, Jonathan Alter wrote “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.” In it, he argued that Roosevelt’s first days in office introduced his character — and drive — to the American people, and also defined the next 12 years of his presidency. The same can now be said of Biden after his first 100 days. They have revealed to us much about his inner core, while also telling us what we can expect from him in the months and years to come. They give reason to hope that he, too, will save a nation in crisis.