You wouldn’t know it from the amount of attention President Trump seems to be paying to it, but the 100-day standard is not much of a guide to the future success of failure of a presidency. Ronald Reagan signed his signature tax cuts into law on his 206th day in office; President Obama signed what would be known as Obamacare on the 368th day of his first term; and JFK’s stellar performance in the Cuban Missile Crisis came after his 634th day in office.
Until the first part of the 20th century, when an historian, journalist or politico used the term “Hundred Days,” they usually meant Napoleon Bonaparte’s ill-fated frenetic activity from the time he escaped from Elba in 1815 until his permanent fall from power after the military defeat at Waterloo. As for American precedents there is no evidence that George Washington, who was well aware that he was establishing the basic norms of the new American presidency, thought there was anything significant about his first 14 weeks in office. It was the actions of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the 73rd Congress in 1933 that turned the meaning of the concept on its head, making it a symbol of executive success.
As historian Arthur Schlesinger—whose hugely influential “The Coming of the New Deal” (1959) chiseled the concept of “The Hundred Days” into historical marble—noted, Roosevelt himself did not come into office thinking there was something magical about his first 100 days as president. What he knew was that action was required to calm American fears and stabilize the financial system. Using a constitutional power intended for use in a national emergency, the president called Congress back for a special session. Five days later, after another presidential proclamation announcing a bank holiday and passage of the Banking Bill, Roosevelt thought he had done enough for the moment.
“Roosevelt,” Schlesinger noted, “had first thought of putting through the emergency banking legislation and sending Congress home.” No hundred days of activity, just five. But like any good politician—and thanks to ambitious aides who encouraged—he sensed an opportunity to move on other fronts associated with the Great Depression. He asked Congress to stay in session for what would be about 100 days and the flood of legislative and executive activity later enshrined as part of The Hundred Days ensued—the Economy Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, the Home Owner’s Loan Act and the Glass-Steagall Banking Act, the National Recovery Act, the abandonment of the gold standard, the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps and beginning the process of overturning Prohibition by allowing the sale of beer and wine. Although the Roosevelt administration provided the push for these changes, most of this activity came in the form of legislation. FDR found he needed only to sign 9 executive orders through his Hundredth Day on June 11 (Presidential terms then started in early March). In other words, Congress, followed his lead.
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That burst of presidential activity in 1933 has yet to be equaled by any subsequent president; and arguably it would not be fair to judge any future president by that standard anyway. FDR’s Hundred Day phenomenon arose out of an almost unique political moment. President Herbert Hoover had left office as deeply unpopular as the newly–elected Franklin Roosevelt was popular. The country was gripped with fear. The official unemployment rate was 25 percent as the only economic system the American people had ever known seemed in free fall. Meanwhile Democrats had increased their majorities in both houses of Congress and were ready to take their lead from the charismatic Roosevelt.
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Until Trump, presidents have been careful not to try to beat Roosevelt’s record. All modern presidents—even the unelected Gerald Ford who promised to end the “long national nightmare of Watergate”—came into office promising change of some sort or another. The iconic presidents like JFK and Ronald Reagan signaled that the change would be lasting and alter the basic relationship of the American people and their government; but none of them promised to get the work done fast. Indeed JFK was explicit about it. “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days,” he famously said in his Inaugural Address. “Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
The fact that most presidents have understood how hard it is repeat FDR’s achievements hasn’t stopped the press and the public from assuming that the 100 Day mark somehow matters. Even Lyndon B. Johnson, who had unexpectedly become president as a result of the tragedy in Dallas, was asked not only to assess his first 100 Days but what slogan he might apply to his approach to governing. At a press conference in March 1964, LBJ replied, “I have had a lot of things to deal with the first 100 days, and I haven’t thought of any slogan, but I suppose all of us want a better deal, don’t we?”
After LBJ, presidents tended not to draw attention to the 100 Days, though they came to accept, seemingly grudgingly, that it signaled the end of the beginning of their administration and knew to expect 100-day assessments in the press. Richard Nixon didn’t acknowledge the standard on his hundredth day (Dwight D. Eisenhower for whom he had served as vice president had not been asked for a 100-day assessment at his press conferences in April 1953), though he did establish a different kind of standard, for music, by hosting that night perhaps the greatest jazz show ever at the White House in celebration of Duke Ellington’s seventieth birthday. Not willing to shy away from the Rooseveltian challenge, but knowing that his first weeks in office didn’t match up, Bill Clinton started talking up the importance of the Second Hundred Days. His successor, George W. Bush, simply made peace with the business. In spite of the fact that his chief political advisor Karl Rove believed that it was the first 180 days that mattered most—the length of the first session of Congress of the administration—George W. Bush acknowledged the existence of this guidepost by hosting a “First Hundred Days Congressional Luncheon” in the Rose Garden.
Timothy Naftali is Clinical Associate Professor of History and Public Service at New York University.