President Trump, who has yet to pass any major legislative initiatives, recently tweeted his frustration with the “ridiculous standard of the first 100 days” as a benchmark for judging a new president’s accomplishments. The historical record suggests that he may have a point.
Landmark laws are a rarity in the first 100 days
Using a widely accepted measure, we can identify all the “landmark” legislation enacted during the first 100 days of a newly elected president’s term since Franklin D. Roosevelt, when the first 100 days became the period to watch. As shown in the table below, most presidents since 1949 finish their first 100 days having passed exactly zero landmark laws (the same trend is found if we count the small number of notable, but less-than-landmark laws that pass, like President Barack Obama’s Lilly Ledbetter Act).
In this regard, at least, Trump can be viewed as a fairly typical president. (For the underlying data, see here.)
True, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed landmark education reform 82 days after his inauguration, and after only 29 days in office, President Barack Obama signed the record-sized fiscal stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, in the wake of the Great Recession. But these cases may be exceptions that prove the rule.
Do the first 100 days predict future performance?
The table also displays the total number of landmark laws enacted during a president’s first full four-year term. Not surprisingly, presidents who are legislatively successful during the first 100 days are also relatively successful during the remainder of the term. Johnson and Obama averaged five landmark laws over their full first term.
What about the fate of presidents who, like Trump, fail to notch a big victory during their first 100 days? More surprisingly, the average number of landmark laws ultimately enacted by Congress and these presidents doesn’t differ significantly from those of Johnson and Obama.
Still, these presidents deliver a wide range of outcomes.
One-third of these presidents never managed to sign any landmark measures into law in their first term. This cohort includes not only presidents who faced a Congress controlled by the opposition party, like Richard Nixon. It also includes Jimmy Carter, who, like Trump, was blessed with House and Senate majorities from his own party.
But an equal number of presidents who got off to a slow start ended by rivaling the accomplishments of the quick-to-start presidents. Admittedly, two of these could be considered unusual cases.
Of the four landmark legislative accomplishments listed under President John F. Kennedy’s first term, only one — the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty — occurred before his assassination. The other three might be more accurately attributed to his successor, Johnson — albeit possibly inspired by the grief after JFK’s assassination.
President George W. Bush’s first term produced an impressive six landmark acts, but four were prompted largely by a single dramatic event, the terrorist attacks of 9/11: the Authorization for Use of Military Force against the terrorists, the USA Patriot Act, the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 and the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which established the federal department.
The other example of a president who was slow to find his legislative footing but ended the first year with a strong record was President Bill Clinton. He produced no landmark legislation during his first 100 days, but his first term eventually resulted in four big laws. Two passed when his fellow Democrats controlled Congress: the Deficit Reduction Act of 1993 and the North American Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act. Another two passed after Republicans swept into power in the 1994 elections: the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 to overhaul the welfare system, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to increase competition in the communications business.
Let’s judge new presidents after their first year instead
So will Trump’s legislative record end up more like that of Carter’s or Clinton’s presidency? At this point, either seems possible. Both early presidencies resemble Trump’s, at least in some ways. The first 100 days simply do not offer enough evidence from which to accurately predict what’s still to come.
So what would be a better period of time to judge? A president’s record after a full year.
As you can see in the table below, five presidencies had nothing big to show after the first full year; after four years, these delivered an average of only 1.4 landmark acts. But six presidencies delivered at least one big act within the first year; after four years, those averaged an impressive four landmarks acts. That’s a statistically significant difference.
In particular, both Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s administrations’ latent legislative skill only become clear toward the end of each one’s first year in office
The “first 100 days” standard should probably be retired by politicians and pundits alike.
As House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) noted last month, “Doing big things is hard.” It takes time to reach out to key players, to craft workable legislation and to build sufficient support. Only in unusual circumstances can all of this come together in only 100 days.
Want to assess Trump’s legislative prowess? Check back in December.
David R. Jones is professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His research focuses on legislative productivity and public opinion of Congress.