But does it all matter? Not really, experts say.
And here’s why:
The date was July 24, 1933. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was sitting behind a desk in the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room. To his left was a microphone, to his right a glass of water. In front of him was his speech, written on a few pieces of paper.
That day, about four months after his inauguration, Roosevelt delivered his third radio address to the people. That speech — one of the nearly 30 fireside chats he made as president — was an appeal to raise the minimum wage and an update of sorts on his plan to pull the country out of the Great Depression. In his nearly 3,000-word progress report, Roosevelt talked about the achievements of his young presidency — the first 100 days “devoted to the starting of the wheels of the New Deal.”
Since then, the idea of the “first 100 days” has taken on a life of its own: Some try to gauge the success (or failure) of an administration by the actions conducted in the first few months, while others view it as a time for leaders to set the tone of the rest of their presidency.
But what has become apparent over time is that the first three months say little about a new president’s achievements, let alone his legacy or his agenda, experts say. It’s simply too short a time to achieve something lasting and meaningful.
“I think what history tells us is that it’s an arbitrary benchmark,” said Fredrik Logevall, a presidential historian and an international affairs professor at Harvard University. “It hasn’t correlated very much with subsequent success or failure. Whether an administration has success or not really depends on the four years, or eight years if you have two terms.”
In reality, Logevall said, it’s a trap that many presidents after Roosevelt have knowingly walked into, pressuring themselves to turn their administration into a “beehive of activity” to meet what they know to be a shortsighted deadline.
And given the heightened partisanship in Congress, passing a major piece of legislation in just three months has become a nearly impossible feat. That makes legislative output within the first 100 days just a “crude measurement” of success, said Jon Schaff, a political-science professor at Northern State University in South Dakota.
“Productivity in the first 100 days rarely says anything about the occupant of the White House,” Schaff said. “It usually says more about the circumstances in which that occupant is serving.”
Still, the first 100 days has become a tool for journalists to take a snapshot of a young presidency, and a public relations strategy for an administration to sell itself to the public, experts say.
That’s understandable, said Nicole Hemmer, a presidential studies professor at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, but one should not overinterpret what little that snapshot says.
Roosevelt and Congress moved at an unprecedented speed. That’s because they had to.
By the time he took office, a quarter of the country’s workforce was jobless and millions of homeowners had defaulted on their mortgages. Scores of banks had folded, and thousands of farms were being foreclosed on every month.
His successful 100 days was, in some ways, the product of a perfect storm: a massive economic crisis and a congressional majority that gave Roosevelt the ability to swiftly pass major pieces of legislation, said John Frendreis, a political-science professor at Loyola University in Chicago.
That makes Roosevelt “something of an anomaly,” Schaff said, because he faced challenges still unmatched to this day.
The closest contemporary example is probably President Barack Obama, Frendreis said. Like Roosevelt, he took office during an economic crisis and had a congressional majority that allowed him to swiftly push his multibillion-dollar stimulus package. Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act with nearly no Republican votes. Obama signed it less than a month after he became president.
For the most part, the first 100 days of presidencies after Roosevelt have become less and less productive, experts say. Part of that has to do with Congress.
In the 1970s, Congress massively expanded its subcommittees to give members more opportunities for leadership roles, Schaff said. That added extra steps in the legislative process, making enacting legislation a longer and more complicated process.
Partisanship and polarization also have become more pronounced, particularly over the past decade or so.
“The parties were differently construed. You have conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans,” said Hemmer of the Miller Center. “That’s less and less true today.”
That divisiveness seems to be even more heightened during the Trump administration, when disagreements are not just between the two major parties, but also within the party in control.
Plans vs. reality
In 2000, George W. Bush ran with an intention to focus on tax cuts and education reform.
In an interview with CNN about his first 100 days, President Bush said he’d made progress on his plan to cut taxes and was continuing negotiations with Democrats about his education agenda. His major tax reform and No Child Left Behind were passed within the first year of his administration.
But as Bush would soon learn, the world has a way of intervening with even the most well laid-out plans.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, just eight months after Bush’s inauguration, the president who had planned on focusing on domestic policy found himself leading the country through a $3 trillion war.
“It was a complete 180 from the domestic agenda,” Hemmer said. “The attacks on 9/11 … and then the failures of that policy would define the second half of that administration.”
But even without natural disasters or terrorist attacks that can completely change the course of an administration, presidential legacies in the form of massive pieces of legislation rarely happen within the first 100 days, except in times of crisis.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, about seven months after he ascended to the presidency.
Obama signed his signature health-care bill, the Affordable Care Act, on March 23, 2010, more than a year after he took office.
Even Roosevelt’s Social Security Act was signed Aug. 14, 1935, almost two years after he became president.
“Most presidents wouldn’t try to push through massive, era-defining legislation in the first 100 days,” Hemmer said. “You’re finding your footing in the first 100 days, and you make mistakes and you get some wins, but it’s generally things that happen a little later in the first year (that define the presidency).”
Take the recent health-care debacle as a sort of cautionary tale.
President Trump had promised a bill that would repeal and replace Obama’s signature health-care law within his first 100 days. Specifically, on Day One. The possibility of that happening ended last month, when House Republicans failed to get enough support from their own party to pass the hastily drafted legislation.
Succumbing to pressure
President John F. Kennedy was clear about his frustration about the 100-day benchmark. He saw it as an impossible pressure to have to work some sort of magic in just three months, said Harvard professor Logevall.
“He told advisers that this is kind of crazy and he doesn’t want to be bound by this,” Logevall said.
He made that clear in his inaugural address: “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration … but let us begin.” (Of course, he was assassinated about 1,000 days into his presidency.)
Nevertheless, many presidents have succumbed to that pressure, and the shadow of Roosevelt’s first 100 days continues to loom over them.
Take this exchange between Johnson and his congressional liaison, Larry O’Brien, as an example. It happened April 9, 1965, about three months after Johnson’s second inauguration and just days away from his 100th day. O’Brien was reporting a congressional victory on an education bill.
LBJ: Now, you’ve got to … jerk out every damn little bill you can and get them down here by the 12th.O’Brien: All right.LBJ: … You’ll have one major really with education. Now, Appalachia’s a super major one … But on the 12th, you’ll have the best Hundred Days. Better than he did!O’Brien: Right.LBJ: And that gives your boys (in Congress) something to run on if you’ll just put out that propaganda … That they’ve done more than they did in Roosevelt’s Hundred Days.”
President Richard M. Nixon went as far as forming a Hundred Days Group — advisers in charge of selling the notion that his administration was buzzing with activity while also trying to, as Nixon said, get him “off the hook on quantity of legislation being the first measure of success of the first hundred days.”
The bottom line, experts say, is that presidents, the public and the media would be better served by paying less attention to an arbitrary deadline.
The 45th president of the United States of America would seem to agree.
As a candidate, Trump touted his “Contract With the American Voter” — which he described as “a 100-day action plan to Make America Great Again.” On the trail, Trump talked repeatedly about what he’d do in the first 100 days.
“On November 8th, Americans will be voting for this 100-day plan to restore prosperity to our economy, security to our communities and honesty to our government,” Trump wrote in his Contract. “This is my pledge to you.”
With the president failing to fulfill major promises in his 100-day plan, his tune has changed.
As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote: “President Trump appears to have seen some news coverage Friday morning that mentioned his fast-approaching 100-day mark. And he decided that he does not like this arbitrary standard — at all.”
That benchmark also comes at a critical time for Trump.
Unless Congress is able to reach a bipartisan budget deal before federal funding expires next week, the president’s 100th day, April 29, will coincide with a government shutdown.