Just How Critical Are the First 100 Days?
Every journey starts with a single step, and every presidency begins with the First 100 Days. Ever since 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt used his first three months in office to lay the foundations of the New Deal, the First 100 Days have been seen as a unique moment--the new president's first and perhaps best chance to reshape the nation according to his own agenda and vision.
Success in the First 100 Days, however, has never meant a guarantee of success later. Nor have early difficulties necessarily doomed a presidency to failure or mediocrity. Like the early returns on election night, the First 100 Days will be the subject of great interest and speculation. But they should also be viewed with skepticism, prudence, and caution.
FDR's First 100 Days was indeed a model of presidential accomplishment. Between March and June 1933 Roosevelt successfully urged Congress to enact a series of laws creating a host of new federal programs. These included the Agricultural Adjustment Act, designed to help the nation's farmers; the National Industrial Recovery Act, which aided industrial workers; the Securities Act, a first step in regulating the stock markets; the Banking Act, which included, for the first time, federal bank deposit insurance; and much more. Some of these measures were temporary, but others (with various amendments and modifications) remain the law of the land even today.
But Roosevelt's legislative onslaught was possible only because he took office in the midst of the worst economic depression in the nation's history. The numbers themselves are staggering, though perhaps difficult to comprehend from our great distance. Fifteen million Americans were unemployed. The Gross National Product (GNP)-a measure of the nation's total economic activity-had fallen by more than half since 1929. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, which had risen to a height of 386.10 on September 3, 1929, fell to 41.22 on July 8, 1932-a drop of nearly ninety percent.
Few of Roosevelt's successors have been even moderately successful during their early days in office, at least in terms of legislative accomplishments. Harry Truman, who took office after Roosevelt's death in April 1945, spent his first four months in office presiding over the last days of World War II-hardly a time to work with Congress on new legislation. Dwight D. Eisenhower initially focused on his campaign promise to end the war in Korea, and, despite having a Republican-controlled Congress, expended little effort on legislative matters. John Kennedy likewise focused on foreign policy, and had little real success on the domestic side. Nor were Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George Bush, or Bill Clinton spectacularly successful in their first few months in office.
Inexperience and disarray have also made several past presidents susceptible to rookie mistakes during the first 100 days. Jack Kennedy authorized the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, for example, in April 1961. Bill Clinton's early mistakes doomed his health care plan, while Jimmy Carter's missteps greatly damaged his relationship with Congress and the federal bureaucracy.
The exceptions to the rule of ineffectiveness might be Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. Johnson capitalized on his own legislative experience and the national trauma following the assassination of Jack Kennedy to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a major antipoverty measure. Then he built on his landslide reelection victory in November 1964 to win approval of the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and a massive increase in federal aid to education. Reagan, who took office amidst high unemployment and high inflation and after a year-long hostage crisis in Iran, likewise acted quickly in 1981 to win congressional victories on tax and spending cuts (along with increases in military expenditures).
What are the lessons for George W. Bush? Roosevelt's successes came against the backdrop of a true economic emergency. Johnson built his victories on the foundations of a landslide electoral victory, the legacy of JFK's memory, and his own unparalleled legislative skills. Reagan triumphed early on largely because he offered the nation hope of escaping from its moral and economic doldrums.
Bush has none of these factors working for him. Many Americans still question the legitimacy of his razor-thin victory over Al Gore. The nation is at peace, and the nation's mood is largely upbeat. The only question mark is the economy, which may be teetering on the brink of recession.
But here Bush is on dangerous ground. Much as he might like to use the economy to boost the chances of his domestic agenda, Bush is aware that the president must act as a national economic cheerleader, reassuring the people that their jobs are secure and their fortunes are safe.
Like most presidents, George W. Bush is anxious to get going, and worried that his best chance for legislative success is now. But the lasting contributions of most presidents have come long after the first 100 days were a distant memory.