Inauguration in March?

This March marks the 76th anniversary of one of the most important turning points in American history. On March 4, 1933, new President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed to the world that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The president’s words helped to buoy the public’s confidence in an economy that had been crashing for nearly four years, and recovery began almost immediately. It was one of the most important—and effective—inaugural addresses of all time.

Wait a minute, you say. FDR’s inaugural was in March? Aren’t presidents always sworn into office in late January? Well, they are now… but only because of what happened in 1932-33. The Constitution originally required a five-month wait between election day in November and inauguration day the following March; this may have made sense back in 1787, when transportation and communication through the American continent were painfully slow. (Back then, it might take a new leader several months just to find out he had won election and make his way to the capital on horseback.)

But transportation and communication technologies improved, and that five-month gap proved disastrous in 1932. President Herbert Hoover, blamed by many Americans for the miseries of the Great Depression, got trounced by Roosevelt in the election. Then, from November through March, through the darkest winter of American economic history, the new president-elect and the defeated incumbent refused to work together. Roosevelt had to wait nearly half a year to begin implementing the ambitious recovery policies of the New Deal; Hoover went into a shell and refused to do much of anything. The American people simply suffered, as unemployment rates soared and the widespread prosperity so recently enjoyed during the Roaring Twenties seemed more and more like a cruel mirage. By the time Roosevelt finally took office, the country was at the breaking point; fortunately, the new president was able to rally the public, stabilize the country’s failing banks, and avoid total catastrophe.

Before the debacle of the long wait of 1932-33 was even over, frustrated state legislatures ratified the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, moving future presidential inaugurals up by six weeks. Thus President Obama—another new president facing grave economic crisis—took office what seems like ages ago, back on January 20, not just yesterday. And thank goodness for that. Whether you think Obama’s doing a good job so far or not, it’s hard to imagine what situation we’d be in today if a powerless, lame-duck George W. Bush had been in office for another two months, doing nothing. Maybe we’d now be fearing fear itself.

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