Why 100 days is a benchmark for presidential performance

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JEFF GREENFIELD: On October 22nd last year, Donald Trump went to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to define his Presidential priorities. The key was not just what he said he’d do, but when.

DONALD TRUMP, GETTYSBURG, PA, OCTOBER 22, 2016: What follows is my 100 day action plan to make America great again.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Why 100 days? Because Trump, like every newly elected President for eight decades, has come to power in the shadow of this President’s first 100 days.

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, INAUGURATION DAY, MARCH 4, 1933: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March of 1933 with the nation in the grips of The Great Depression.

ADAM COHEN, AUTHOR OF ‘ NOTHING TO FEAR’: People could literally not pay their bills when they were checking out of their hotels, who came down for the inauguration.
The banking system had collapsed. Unemployment was at 25 percent. The stock market had plunged. So everyone agreed that there had to be bold action.

JEFF GREENFIELD: And that’s what FDR delivered. Within a week, he declared a “bank holiday,” which closed all banks for four days, and ordered others reforms that bolstered the financial system. He flooded Congress — then dominated by Democrats and liberal Republicans— with bills saving farmers from insolvency and putting thousands of jobless to work building infrastructure and parks.

NEWSREEL: Hundreds of dams will make lakes in regions where large bodies of water are unknown…”

JEFF GREENFIELD: By early summer, Congress had passed 15 major bills, and “the 100 days” became shorthand for decisive presidential action.

ADAM COHEN: It was really was as much for Congress the clock was ticking as it was Roosevelt. When people look back they saw that he had done a lot in 100 days, but it was never the plan. The plan was just to do a lot.

JEFF GREENFIELD: And that has posed a challenge for every President since, including the incoming one: how much can you do in 100 days?

ROBERT DALLEK, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Since this new president, Trump, has promised to ‘Make America Great Again,’ there’s particular pressure on him to deliver something in the first 100 days to demonstrate he’s moving the country forward.

JOHN F. KENNEDY, INAUGURATION DAY, JANUARY 20, 1961: The torch has passed to a new generation of Americans.

JEFF GREENFIELD: This pressure is often unwelcome; John F. Kennedy was so exasperated by it that he made sure to disavow it in his speech.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: All this will not be accomplished in the first hundred days, nor will it be finished in the first thousand…

JEFF GREENFIELD: Moreover, Presidents rarely have the massive Congressional majorities FDR had.

Ronald Reagan got his tax cuts through a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, in part because of the goodwill after he was nearly assassinated. Bill Clinton got his first budget through Congress with one vote to spare in the House and one in the Senate – the tiebreaker cast by his vice president. Barack Obama’s stimulus package escaped a Senate filibuster by just three votes.

More importantly, apart from Roosevelt, does a President’s first 100 days give us a very good measure of a chief executive?

ROBERT DALLEK: Historians look back not only on the first 100 days but on the whole presidential term and if they end up being there for 8 years, it dwarfs those first 100 days.

JEFF GREENFIELD: As for Mister Trump, he’ll have Republican majorities in the House and Senate, and he can use his executive powers to change some policies within days. But he also lost the national popular vote and is entering the White House with the lowest approval ratings of any incoming president in modern history. These will be significant challenges for a President who promises bold, swift action.

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