Jonathan Alter is author of “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope ” and “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.”
President Trump is fond of his first 100 days. “I don’t think that there is a presidential period of time in the first 100 days where anyone has done nearly what we’ve been able to do,” he said recently.
To give you a sense of how ridiculous this is, let’s start with the two Hundred Days champs: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.
In his first 100 days in 1933, at the depths of the Great Depression, Roosevelt signed 15 major bills, rescuing the banking system, winding down Prohibition, slashing the budget, regulating Wall Street for the first time, limiting foreclosures, raising disastrously low crop prices, enacting bank deposit insurance and putting 250,000 young men to work through the Civilian Conservation Corps, which eventually employed 3 million Americans. Finally, Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act, which reshaped every aspect of the American economy (though not always for the better). The country came out of its coma psychologically. One journalist observed that, for all of his shortcomings, the new president had accomplished “three magnificent things”: hope, action and self-respect.
Johnson was sworn in after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in late 1963, but his real first 100 days came in 1965 after his reelection in a landslide. The long-term impact was immense: After civil rights demonstrators were beaten in Selma, Ala., in March, he told Americans, “Their cause must be our cause, too. . . . And we shall overcome.” His stand led to the August signing of the Voting Rights Act, the most important civil rights legislation in a century. Johnson’s first 100 days also saw approval of the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which brought aid to poor schools. Just after the first 100 days came Medicare and Medicaid.
In fact, according to the American people, every president since Roosevelt has had a more successful debut than Trump. The latest Gallup Poll shows Trump’s approval rating at 40 percent, the only president with the support of less than half of the public at this point in his term.
In 1961, Kennedy suffered a serious setback with the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. But his humility after the fiasco and a sense of renewal in the nation sent his approval ratings to 83 percent, the highest on record for the first 100 days.
Many have lately compared Trump to Jimmy Carter, who alienated the Democratic Congress in 1977 by proposing to kill more than a dozen expensive water projects in the districts of powerful House barons. But Carter’s extraordinary grasp of complex issues when he took phone calls on CBS with Walter Cronkite and in a televised town hall meeting in Massachusetts sent his approval ratings 23 points higher than Trump’s. Even his calls for Americans to conserve energy were popular.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan’s bold package of tax cuts, domestic budget cuts and defense increases appeared to be stalled in the Democratic Congress. But after he was wounded in March by John Hinckley Jr., his program began moving quickly through Congress and his popularity went to 68 percent.
Even presidents who experienced unexceptional first 100 days have almost always had something lasting to show for it. George H.W. Bush signed legislation protecting whistleblowers. Bill Clinton won the Family and Medical Leave Act and the “Motor Voter Act” expanding voter registration. And George W. Bush didn’t win big victories at first, but within six weeks after his first 100 days, he had his big tax cut in place.
The most significant first 100 days of recent times came in 2009, when Barack Obama pushed through the second installment of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) — a $350 billion bank bailout — even before he took office. Then came the $787 billion stimulus, an expansion of children’s health insurance and helping to save General Motors and Chrysler. Even though no one knew at the time that the taxpayers would get their money back, Obama’s popularity was still 24 points higher than Trump’s is today.
Historians judge presidential debuts by lasting legislative achievements, not tweets or theatrics. Yes, some of Trump’s right-wing appointments and executive orders will do semi-permanent damage, though most of the orders merely study the problem and do not have the force of law.
Under Trump, the Senate did approve Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, but only after Republicans nuked long-standing Senate rules. Beyond some highly specific congressional resolutions, Trump has nothing to show so far for his promises. No major legislation has come to the Senate floor, and it looks as if none will for some time. The use of the Congressional Review Act, which allows reversal of last-minute regulations from the prior administration, is a blow, especially to the Clean Power Plan. But otherwise, if the repealed regulations were so crucial, why did Obama wait nearly eight years to issue them?
The “100 days” milestone may be artificial, but first impressions count and the first 100 days are a good indicator of success or failure in a president’s crucial first year in office.
Trump has plenty of time to recover. Past is not prologue for presidents, especially so early in their terms. But Trump’s claim to historic success so far gives new meaning to the two biggest words of his first 100 days: fake news.
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