Key to Success: Steady Effort, Not ‘First 100 Days’ Scramble

February 5, 2001

The Bush team has entered the White House under full steam: Reforms are being proposed, tax-cut plans buffed and a new budget drafted. President Bush and his aides are out to make each of his first 100 days in office count.

They’d be better off not entering that old ”first 100 days” contest at all.

A president is indeed most influential with Congress when he’s new in office, which is when legislators are most apt to give him, his team and his ideas some political leeway. But that first 100 days also happens to be when a president is the least likely to know just what to do. No matter how smart a new president is on his first day in office, he always gets better, and so does his legislative craftsmanship.

So Bush is far more likely to be remembered for what he proposes, and what he does, during the next two years than during the next two months—unless, of course, he makes a history-defining mistake, as John Kennedy did in approving the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba just after entering office in 1961.

The big ones

Bush can find ample support for patience in the federal government’s greatest achievements—and failures—since World War II.

According to 450 historians and political scientists interviewed by the Brookings Institution’s Government Endeavors Project, the federal government’s top five achievements during the past half-century are: rebuilding Europe after World War II; expanding the right to vote; providing equal access to public accommodations for all Americans; reducing disease through vaccination and research; and reducing workplace discrimination.

In contrast, its greatest disappointments are: devolving responsibilities to the states; controlling immigration; simplifying taxes; expanding urban mass transit; and renewing poor communities.

Bush can draw four calming lessons from the legislative histories of these greatest hits and misses:

* Achievement almost never emerges from proposals introduced, let alone enacted, during the first 100 days of a new administration. The vast majority of major laws enacted since World War II were introduced well after inauguration day, often making their first appearance years ahead of final passage.

* Great achievements involve perseverance over time. Presidents usually make their greatest mark by building upon past successes. That is how the air and water became cleaner, communism was contained, veterans of war were helped, and diseases were conquered. That is also how past gains such as ensuring safe food and drinking water will be protected, and past disappointments such as the failure to renew poor communities will be reversed.

* Achievement rarely involves a single breakthrough law such as Medicare or the Americans with Disabilities Act. Once launched, government’s greatest hits involve repeated efforts to fine-tune, expand and repair. Poverty among the elderly has fallen because of 12 separate increases in Social Security benefits and two major efforts to rescue the program during periods of financial crisis, while the right to vote has been expanded through a half-dozen national statutes as well as at least two constitutional amendments.

* Achievement rarely occurs through a single president, party or session of Congress. To the contrary, achievement is almost always rooted in the kind of bipartisan bargaining and search for common ground so often found at the end of a two-year legislative marathon rather than in the partisan boasts so often made in a honeymoon.

He who ignores history . . .

This history not only endorses patience, but also warns that the first 100 days are more likely to produce mishaps than impact. President Reagan’s greatest achievement in 1981, for instance, was not in passing his budget and tax agenda, but in recovering from early mistakes, most notably a 96-0 Senate drubbing of a Social Security proposal that was anything but an achievement.

Given the opportunity for greatness embedded in a more measured pace, and the extraordinary risk involved in overreaching, the Bush administration would be better off worrying less about its first 100 days—and more about the country’s next 10,000.