For Mitt Romney, no way around the ‘first 100 days’ rule

Melina Mara/THE WASHINGTON POST - Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, in Reno, Colorado, Wednesday, October, 24, 2012.

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Less than two weeks out from the election, we’re starting to get some sense of how both candidates might govern if elected.

President Obama agreed to release previously off-the-record comments in an interview with the Des Moines Register that outlined his priorities for a second term. And Politico is out with a story that offers an inside look at what Mitt Romney’s transition team, dubbed the “Readiness Project,” has in store.

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It will come as little surprise that Romney, a CEO with a lengthy business background, is taking a page from business management handbooks in prepping for the transition if he wins. His team is planning “a series of modest but quick accomplishments,” the Politico report says, otherwise known as “quick wins” in management parlance. Although he doesn’t deploy the overused “listening tour” phrase, his team might as well when it speaks of reaching out to build relationships with House and Senate Democrats in preparation for a potential term. More unusual, the team is calling what’s traditionally known as a leader’s “first 100 days” a “200-day plan” instead, thanks to the gridlocked political climate making it “too tough to promise much in only three months,” aides told Politico.

This is an interesting twist for Romney, should he be elected. On the one hand, in going against the traditional 90- or 100-day timeframe most leaders use to set out their initial agendas, Romney is openly questioning what many already see as an artificial barometer. The idea that any leader can achieve substantial change in just three months—especially amid partisan acrimony that’s not going away, no matter who’s elected—is simplistic and contrived.

And yet, the milestone has been used as “the first measuring mark,” in the words of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, for every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Politico attributes the 100-day lingo to John F. Kennedy, but it was FDR’s historic first three months in office that first set the yardstick.) Entire blogs have been devoted to the legendary time period, and its use as a benchmark has seeped into business jargon. Consultants now write how-to books for business leaders’ first 100 days, reporters weigh in at the milestone with performance review, and CEOs use early conference calls to clue analysts in to their priorities.

As a result, it seems likely that no matter what deadline Romney sets for the initial agenda of his would-be presidency, pundits are sure to judge his progress and accomplishments over the first three months, nonetheless. I don’t blame him for trying to reset expectations, and I agree it’s an artificial timeline. But when the point of the exercise seems to be less about comparing a president with his promises, and more about comparing his out-of-the-gate performance with the leaders who came before him, it seems unlikely Romney will be able to change the rules of that game.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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