The first 100 days: When did we start caring about them and why do they matter?

The White House stands in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, April 16, 2021. Credit: Stefani Reynolds / Pool/Sipa USANo Use Germany.

As we approach President Biden’s first 100 days in office many will use the occasion to evaluate his performance. Why 100 days? There is no constitutional or statutory significance to the first 100 days of a president’s term. In the first hundred and forty-four years of the Republic no one made a big deal about the 100-day mark. It is a somewhat arbitrary and artificial milestone. David Alexrod, a top aide to President Obama once called it a “Hallmark Holiday”—lots of attention but no significance.

So where did this come from and why do we still talk about it?

It came from the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Elected in the midst of a great depression, Roosevelt kept out of the fray during the long transition period between Election Day 1932 and Inauguration Day on March 4, 1933. According to historians, his sense of political theater led him to avoid President Hoover’s attempts to involve him in dealing with the overwhelming crises before the country.[1] Thus he successfully orchestrated a complete break from the past and a new start with the American people.

FDR’s ability to talk to America is without equal in the 20th century and in 1933 it was an especially dramatic contrast to the stern and uncaring policies of his predecessor Herbert Hoover, who had vetoed several relief bills. Roosevelt’s inaugural address is memorable for the phrase “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” And less than two weeks after that he gave the first of many fireside chats—explaining over the radio, in simple terms, what was happening to Americans and how he would fix it.

But Roosevelt’s rhetoric and mastery of the new medium of radio were not what made him the president who is remembered for the first 100 days. It was the breathtaking scope of bold and new actions, both legislative and regulatory, that set the bar so high. To name but a few: in those 100 days he declared a bank holiday which stopped the disastrous run on the banks, he took America off the gold standard, and he passed groundbreaking legislation for farmers and homeowners and for the unemployed. He also passed amendments to the hated Volstead Act which had created prohibition. Immediately, “beer parties” were held all over the country in celebration.[2]

Ever since, presidents have been evaluated for their performance in the first 100 days. Suffice it to say that few have lived up to Roosevelt. Ronald Reagan probably comes closest of all the presidents since then—a combination of skill and luck. His administration began with the release of the hostages that had been held in Iran by Islamic radicals. No clearer contrast could be drawn between him and the unlucky President Jimmy Carter, whose last year in office was clouded by the hostage crisis that he could not control and that he could not end. Although Reagan had little to do with ending the crisis, he came in with a clean slate.

Like Roosevelt, Reagan was a masterful communicator with a bold plan of action. While Roosevelt’s plans didn’t follow any coherent ideology—early on he was fiscally conservative while expanding the welfare state—Reagan’s plans did. Before becoming president he’d spent decades honing and preaching the conservative ideology that was to become such a powerful force in American politics and he believed he had a mandate to roll back the welfare state. Within weeks of his inauguration he had proposed a sweeping agenda “…in a package of proposals including 83 major program changes, 834 amendments to the budget this year and next, 151 lesser budgetary actions and 60 additional pieces of legislation.” In the middle of his first 100 days he survived an assassination attempt, adding to his mystique and increasing his popularity.

But few presidents get the sunny reviews accorded Roosevelt and Reagan in their first 100 days. Some presidents were praised simply for the fact that they were stylistically different from their predecessors. Jimmy Carter’s down-home humility was a refreshing contrast to the preceding “imperial presidency” of Richard Nixon. Kennedy and Clinton marked a generational change in the presidency that was, in each case, widely welcomed. And Obama’s cool intellectualism was a welcome contrast to George W. Bush’s penchant for butchering the language.

Others have suffered in their 100-day evaluation because of the contrast with beloved predecessors. Poor Harry Truman ascended to the presidency when Roosevelt died in office. Most Americans had never known another president and they loved the man who took them through the Great Depression and the world war. There was no way Truman could compete with Roosevelt for the affections of the public. His big plans for expansion of the New Deal were pronounced dead on arrival by a hostile Congress and his international successes were credited to Roosevelt, who had put many of them in motion. Truman won election in his own right in 1948 but declined to run again in 1952. History has treated him kindly but the first 100 days did not. President George H.W. Bush suffered in comparison to the eloquent Reagan. He lacked the “vision thing” and his tendency to butcher the language was summed up in this quote to a reporter, “Fluency in English is not something I’m often accused of.”

Other Presidents have poor 100 day reviews because of missteps that make people doubt their maturity and judgement. John F. Kennedy went forward with the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. This led early appraisers to wonder “whether President Kennedy will be able to steer a steady course in the face of so much adversity or whether frustration will lead to ill-prepared and hasty action.”[3] Bill Clinton nominated two attorney general candidates in a row who hadn’t paid taxes on their household staff—a humiliating opener to his first term and one which fed the early narrative that he was not quite ready for prime time. His flip flops on gays in the military also made him look like he was out of his depth.

But many of the things that are written about the first 100 days are long forgotten by the end of the first term and they often have nothing to do with a president’s actual success. President Clinton had a rocky first 100 days but he went on to win re-election in 1996—making him the first Democrat to be elected to two full terms since Roosevelt.

Sometimes, however, 100-day judgements turn out to predict problems that are more fundamental to the presidency. Jimmy Carter’s early problems with Congress foreshadowed the problems he was to have with the liberal wing of the Democratic party. These problems were so severe that Carter faced a nomination challenge from Senator Ted Kennedy (D. MA) that certainly contributed to the fact that he became a one-term president.

In Obama’s first 100 days he faced criticisms and internal arguments over the correct size of the stimulus. In agreeing to a smaller stimulus than some of his economists wanted he may have prolonged the great recession, and in 2010 he lost the House of Representatives and impaired his ability to achieve other important goals in his first term.

More recently, Donald Trump’s first 100 days foreshadowed the narcissism and the chaos that would mark the rest of his term. On the day after his inauguration, he went to the Central Intelligence Agency and stood in front of the wall of stars honoring those who had lost their lives in service to their country. There, to the astonishment of everyone in attendance, he proceeded to focus on a series of trivial political arguments such as his assertion that the crowd attending his inauguration was more than one million people even though it clearly was not.

The chaos and failure that was to engulf Trump throughout his first term was also on display in his first 100 days. His big pledge to repeal Obamacare failed in the Congress—in part because Trump never offered a credible replacement. He imposed a hiring freeze on federal employees and then lifted it in April. He went back on his campaign pledge to declare China a currency manipulator. His executive orders to block travelers from “terror-prone” countries were so poorly drawn up that they were struck down by the courts twice, after having caused massive chaos at airports around the world.

A president’s first 100 days is by no means the definitive judgement on his administration, but the legacy of Roosevelt means that the press continues to pay attention to it and so do we. As we look at the assessments there will be, no doubt, some things that turn out to not matter and some that may predict what will matter. Figuring out which is which is the challenge.

[1] See: Roosevelt: the Lion and the Fox, 1882 – 1940 by James MacGregor Burns and The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, By Jonathan Alter.

[2] The Volstead Act was totally repealed at the end of 1933.

[3] “Kennedy’s First 100 Days: Gain at Home, Loss Abroad,” by Anthony Lewis,  New York Times, April 30, 1961, page 1.