Should the First 100 Days Be a Big Deal?

As President Trump marks his 100th day in office, we look back through history at what some of his predecessors accomplished in their first 100 days.
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Greg Timmons
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As President Trump marks his 100th day in office, we look back through history at what some of his predecessors accomplished in their first 100 days.
Donald Trump in July 2016

April 29 marks President Donald Trump's 100th day in office.

The first 100 days of any president’s term in office comes with great expectations. The media often uses the 100-day benchmark as a way to rate a president’s performance. At times, some presidents even do this themselves, unless, of course, things don’t go so well, and then the 100-day benchmark is deemed “ridiculous.”  

The truth is, all the claims and boasts made during a presidential campaign now face the reality of politics and the “friendly” opposition. Few presidents find the first 100 days to be their best and more often, this period serves as on-the-job training. One exception might be our 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who coined the phrase “100 days” in a July 24, 1933 Fireside Chat. He was referring to the legislative activity of Congress in 1933, “starting the wheels of the New Deal.”  

By his 100th day in office, President Roosevelt had begun to redefine the role of government. The unprecedented economic conditions during the Great Depression created a climate of “try anything.”

By his 100th day in office, President Roosevelt had begun to redefine the role of government. The unprecedented economic conditions during the Great Depression created a climate of “try anything.”

By his 100th day in office, President Roosevelt had begun to redefine the role of government. During that time, Congress and his administration had enacted an unprecedented 15 major bills forming the foundation for the New Deal. Among them were a national bank holiday, ending the gold standard, formation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission (FDIC), passing the Glass-Steagall Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Public Works Administration.  

President Roosevelt’s precedent-setting standard may set unrealistic expectations for subsequent presidents who may not have had his advantages. The unprecedented economic conditions during the Great Depression created a climate of “try anything.” Roosevelt’s political party, the Democrats, controlled both houses of Congress. They weren’t trying to set any record for the most bills passed, they just wanted to try something that worked. Since Roosevelt, the legislative process has changed with stronger Congressional subcommittees adding extra layers to the law-making process. In more recent times, the atmosphere of working together that Roosevelt enjoyed has been replaced with a harder line of upholding ideological beliefs and maintaining the support of the political base. 

It is true that the first 100 days affords the best chance for a president to enact his or her agenda during what’s called the “honeymoon” period after the inauguration. However, the claims made during the campaign and the goals set for dealing with domestic and international issues become vastly different during a chief executive’s first term in office. John Kennedy’s inauguration speech boldly claimed America would pay any price, bear any burden, and oppose any foe in the defense of liberty. But the possibility of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis forced him to find a workable relationship with the Soviet Union. Cold warrior Richard Nixon, campaigned on stemming the tide of communism. However, when the opportunity arose, he met with Premier Mao Tse-tung to open a dialogue and eventually business interests with Communist China. George W. Bush’s first inaugural speech warned against nation-building. But an attack on American soil generated two wars and faltering reconstruction projects that have lasted over 16 years. Barack Obama strode into office with high approval ratings and a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. Yet, it took over 13 months, or 427 days, to pass the Affordable Care Act. 

The possibility of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis forced President Kennedy to find a workable relationship with the Soviet Union.

The possibility of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis forced President Kennedy to find a workable relationship with the Soviet Union.

What about the success of presidents before FDR? How did Washington or Lincoln do in their first 100 days? Many historians place George Washington’s first 100 days as the most productive primarily because he set the precedent for all other presidents. When he took office in 1789, there was an atmosphere of uncertainty as to whether the American experiment would even work. Washington and the Congress were designing an entirely new government. If we take some liberty and look at the first 153 days, we see that much was done: A Bill of Rights was passed, the nation’s court system was designed, executive department were created and a system of taxation was established. Most importantly, the office of the president was created, which gave great legitimacy to the new federal government. 

Abraham Lincoln portrait, 1863

Perhaps the most controversial first 100 days of any president would have to be those of Abraham Lincoln who faced nearly an apocalyptic situation.

Probably the most controversial first 100 days of any president would have to be those of Abraham Lincoln who faced nearly an apocalyptic situation. By his inauguration on March 4, 1861, seven states out of 33, nearly one-third, had seceded from the Union and by summer, another four would follow. Thus, restoring the Union became his sole priority. In his first five score and a few days, Lincoln issued proclamations placing a blockade on Southern ports and ordered the Navy to purchase 20 steamships for coastal water defense. He called for 75 thousand federal troops and 42 thousand volunteers from the states. He ordered the Treasury Secretary to advance $2 million to three private New York agents to purchase military materials for recruiting and transporting troops. And he suspended the writ of habeas corpus. All without calling Congress into session until July 4, 1861. By the standards of the time, nearly all these actions could have been deemed unconstitutional. 

Presidents who play into the first 100 day benchmark do so at their own political peril. Comparing one’s performance to the record of FDR is as foolish as it is irrelevant. The economic horrors of the Great Depression and the political circumstances that existed at that time have never been replicated and probably never will. Every day of a president’s term is important. History records what presidents do during their term of office, not just the first 100 days. When evaluating any president’s time in office, it’s not the number of accomplishments that’s important, but the effect they have on the country and the world for the long term. To do less is unfair to the president in question and the American public.