Since the Senate finally passed its version of President Obama’s $800 billion economic recovery package today, I figured it would be an appropriate time to write about Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, which I recently finished reading. After all, Obama’s stimulus plan is often compared to Franklin Roosevelt’s first New Deal.

(Reuters briefly compared the Obama plan to both of Roosevelt’s New Deals and some other government-funded programs in a fact box that can be found here: http://uk.reuters.com/article/usTopNews/idUKTRE5195XR20090210?sp=true.)

The Defining Moment is a good read, but its full title is a bit misleading. The entire book doesn’t concentrate on FDR’s first hundred days as president. The first half provides a good overview of Roosevelt’s upbringing in life and in politics (basically everything that leads up to him becoming president) before shifting focus to the Hundred Days. I actually learned more from the first half of the book than the second half, which isn’t a criticism, just a fact.

I think Alter did a good job setting the scene for FDR’s arrival at the White House in March 1933. It was somewhat unsettling to read the details of the Great Depression. Think today’s unemployment rate (7.6 percent) and number of unemployed people (11.6 million) are high? In 1932, more than 16 million Americans – 25 percent of the workforce – were jobless. Of the 1.5 million Chicagoans employed two years earlier, 700,000 were out of work. Can you imagine half of Chicago being unemployed?

For what it’s worth, Obama was more proactive in addressing the current economic crisis than Roosevelt was regarding the Great Depression in the months immediately following each man’s election. Probably the most disturbing thing written about Roosevelt in this book is that FDR refused to work with his presidential predecessor, Herbert Hoover, and did nothing to assuage people’s fears about the economic crisis until he took office four months after the election.

The book doesn’t gloss over less successful parts of the New Deal, such as the National Recovery Administration. This serves as a reminder that we can’t expect every part of Obama’s economic recovery plan to work as well as intended, even if we hope it all works for the good of the country.

Regarding Alter’s writing style, I found it detailed yet easy to read, which prompted me to purchase Between the Lines: A View Inside American Politics, People, and Culture, a collection of Newsweek columns penned by Alter. The fact that Waldenbooks was selling the hardcover book for 90 percent off its $24.95 list price helped convince me to buy it, too. 🙂

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