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Don’t Under-rate the Impact of Leadership – Let FDR Be an Example for Biden, Congress, and the Rest of Us in Stemming the COVID Tide

Nate Lentz
January 13, 2021

Franklin Roosevelt is a perfect example of the kind of leaders we need in the country today.  I have been listening to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times and her Chapter on Turnaround Leadership – Franklin Roosevelt and the Hundred Days could not be more timely for what faces our country over the coming weeks and months ahead as we undertake the critical actions to stem the tide of COVID-19 and rebuild the economy and the nation.  Wikipedia does a nice job summarizing what Goodwin described in detail regarding FDRs immediate actions and first 100 days.

The first 100 days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency began on March 4, 1933, the day Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as the 32nd President of the United States. He spent the first week of his Presidency dealing with a month-long series of bank closures that were ruining families nationwide.[4]:78 He closed the entire American banking system on March 6, 1933. On March 9, Congress passed the Emergency Banking Act, which Roosevelt used to effectively create federal deposit insurance when the banks reopened.[5] At 10 p.m. ET that Sunday night, on the eve of the end of the bank holiday, Roosevelt spoke to a radio audience of more than 60 million people, to tell them in clear language “what has been done in the last few days, why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be.”[4]:78–79 It was the first of 30 evening radio addresses that came to be called the Fireside Chats.

The result, according to economic historian William L. Silber, was a “remarkable turnaround in the public’s confidence … The contemporary press confirms that the public recognized the implicit guarantee and, as a result, believed that the reopened banks would be safe, as the President explained in his first Fireside Chat.” Within two weeks people returned more than half of the cash they had been hoarding, and the first stock-trading day after the bank holiday marked the largest-ever one-day percentage price increase.[5]

During this next 100 day period, FDR presented a series of initiatives to Congress designed to counter the effects of the Great Depression. He had signaled his intention to move with unprecedented speed to address the problems facing the nation in his inaugural address, declaring: “I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require.”[1]Roosevelt’s specific priorities at the outset of his presidency were getting Americans back to work, protecting their savings and creating prosperity, providing relief for the sick and elderly, and getting industry and agriculture back on their feet.[2] The 100th day of his presidency was June 11, 1933.

Roosevelt coined the term “first 100 days” during a July 24, 1933, radio address.[1][3] 13 major laws were enacted during this period. Since then, the first 100 days of a presidential term has taken on symbolic significance, and the period is considered a benchmark to measure the early success of a president.

This country has serious problems that require a turnaround leadership mindset. We need to rapidly and effectively and fairly distribute vaccines.  We need to have people uniformly take the actions necessary to stop the rampant spread of the virus through consistent precautions, mask wearing, testing, and contact tracing.  We need to take care of those who are being economically devastated by the virus.  We need to get the generation that represents our future back to school where learning can be effective.  We need to support state and local governments so they can effectively deliver on their own set of duties necessary to stop the damage.

All of these actions require money, but they also require executive leadership.  An effective vaccine supply chain doesn’t just emerge – it needs to be planned, led, managed, and monitored.  A set of established processes for disease control have to be mandated and states and local governments need to comply or feel real pain for a lack of compliance.  In the late 1970s, states implemented a national speed limit of 55 and drinking age of 21, but only under pressure from the federal government in the form of the threat of the loss of federal highway dollars.   Leadership isn’t always about asking for compliance but creating the carrot and stick incentives to make change happen and to make this change happen fast.  Biden, Harris, Pelosi, and Schumer – you are now the leaders.  Governors and mayors across the nation, you should be asking how you can help and be willing to follow the federal leadership.  This isn’t about party right now – it is about country and all of our futures.  Future generations will watch how you spend the next 100 days.  We know where history will place the previous administration of failed leaders.

I spent my last days of 2020 taking oxygen readings every hour for myself and my family who had tested positive for COVID in the weeks leading up to the holidays.  We had been safe and we had managed a very tight contact group, yet somehow the disease slipped in.  Fortunately we all got through this round of COVID without the need for urgent care, yet it was frightening for all of us.  We entered 2021 not yet certain we were past our risk period yet feeling like a light was finally shining at the end of the tunnel.   The light isn’t the vaccine.  The light is the possibility that we will have leaders who will focus on doing their jobs, executing, and leading.

Venture capital is a lesson in leadership.  So much of the difference between a successful investment and a failure is in the leadership we invest behind.  It is the same for a country.  In the times of calm, leadership is under appreciated.  In times of crisis, history reveres the leaders.  For decades and generations, great leaders are remembered.  I hope my children’s children know the names – Biden, Harris, Pelosi, Schumer, along with members of Congress and state and local leadership from both parties.  That will mean that they have been successful in guiding us through these challenging times.