Probably ever since Arab (and Mayan) cipherists invented the zero, we’ve been intrigued by time-frames that end in zeroes. A decade, a century, a millennium. The immense media coverage of year 2000, with its th!!!ree zeroes - and endless arguments over whether it was the last year of the old millennium or the first year of the new one - probably marks the high point for this exercise.
By definition, however, obsession is unstoppable. And in our accelerated era, nobody wants to wait even one year, much less 10, to celebrate, commemorate, commiserate and … evaluate, especially when it comes to politics, and especially when it comes to the Presidency. The earliest assessment has been cut to the shortest reasonable time-frame containing zeroes … 100 days.
Salon.com’s Jake Tapper notes: "It's a media device to assess and give an excuse to hype and ... give an excuse to have experts on to talk about that. It's like the way the greeting card companies invented Father's Day; the media invented Hundred Days."
In fact, rather than the media, it was FDR who established the 100-day judgment in his radio address
of July 24, 1933. And it’s been used, fairly or unfairly, to grade every President ever since. (Even the most ratings-driven pundit can’t make a go of a 10-day evaluation, although a couple of mass mediants in California tried to view Governor Schwarzenegger’s administration through the prism of its first 50 days.)
OK. So evaluating a President on his first 100 days is admittedly arbitrary. But is there any truth at all to the idea that what the President does and what happens to him in those first days makes a difference in the greater scheme of things? Do they set the stage for what is to follow? Do they make for an inescapable initial impression that plagues or uplifts a President for the rest of his time in office? Do they prepare him in any way for the hundreds of days which follow? In short, do they matter?
Most modern Presidents have had slow starts, survived them, and been judged mostly on later achievements. And those with successful starts often benefited from special circumstances – a crisis or extreme popularity. For others, rushing to wring results out of the first 100 days has often backfired.
By the time Lincoln had completed his first hundred days, 15 Union and Confederate soldiers had been killed in four minor battles. The first slaughter (at Bull Run) was a month away. And while he was engaged with the consequences of that frightful war from the beginning of his Presidency to his assassination, those first 100 days did little to predict how it all would turn out or how Lincoln would be judged by history.
FDR’s first 100 days are practically legendary. In that period, he stopped gold transactions, created a bank holiday, cut half a billion dollars from the federal budget (to ease the $5 billion deficit), slashed veterans’ benefits, asked Congress to legalize beer and tax the proceeds at 5%, and pushed 15 major bills through Congress to reshape every aspect of the economy, from banking to social welfare. Those days set the tone for at least FDR’s first two terms, and helped persuade Americans to reelect him for two additional terms.
JFK remarked on the imaginary milestone in his Inaugural address: ”All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
Before his 100 days were up, President Kennedy had announced the Alliance for Progress and faced Fidel Castro’s victory at the Bay of Pigs, something many blamed on Kennedy’s hesitation to wipe out all of Cuba’s tiny air force. This public embarrassment helped shape Kennedy’s foreign policy toward Latin America and Southeast Asia.
In his first 100 days, Ronald Reagan pushed $41 billion in cuts from Great Society programs and a 30% marginal tax cut, (both of which took 180 days and some dilution to pass), called for vastly greater defense spending, took a bullet in the chest and laid the groundwork for what (at the time) would become the largest set of deficits in U.S. history.
Bill Clinton actually used the 100-day meme as part of his election campaign. By the time that period was over, he had set in motion the building of a plan to offer quality, affordable health care for all Americans, something he had promised to do "within the first 100 days of my presidency." He also had got Congress to pass a massive deficit-reduction plan and had infamously backed down on some of his Cabinet appointments. The issue of gays in the military took widespread hold, and the ensuing discussion wrested control of the public agenda away from Clinton, who took months to get it back.
Within his first hundred days, President G.W. Bush started his education overhaul package, his faith-based services initiative and his $1.6 trillion, 10-year tax relief package. He also announced a business-as-usual energy plan which the Senate has held up for more than two-and-a-half years. Also, Bush made his mark on environmental policy, rejecting the Kyoto Treaty, rolling back campaign promises on clean air and reversing Clinton administration initiatives on drinking water.
While it’s far from obvious that there will be a Democratic President to have a first 100 days to fill in 2005, let’s make a leap and assume. If a Democrat wins in November, what do you think should be his most important task between January and May 1? Reshaping foreign policy? Devising a universal health care plan? Dealing with structural economic problems? Restoring America’s one-time preeminence in protecting the environment?
Take the Poll.