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Normal presidents downplay the 100 days cliché. Trump is letting it control him.

The most media-obsessed White House ever.

Donald Trump’s White House is obsessed with how its first 100 days will be scored in the media. It’s an absurd, arbitrary marker, and Trump himself has even said so. But he’s the most media-obsessed president of all time, and the Trump White House is very concerned about how it will be graded on its first 100 days.

Trump himself has called the marker “ridiculous.” But he clearly cares about it profoundly, which is why he’s out there telling outlandish lies about the scale of his achievements and having his press office release an error-riddled comparison of Trump’s 100 days to his predecessors.

Trump was, of course, right the first time. It’s an entirely meaninglessly milestone. But in his desperation to put points on the board, the White House is suddenly jamming the last week of his 100 days with a crowded agenda of half-baked policy items. He’s got a new health care bill that hasn’t been scored by the CBO and suddenly has a plan to totally rewrite the tax code. And he still needs Congress to avert a government shutdown, all while he picks obscure fights with Canada.

It’s an approach to government that prioritizes good cable news segments over good governance, and it’s ridiculous.

The origins of the first 100 days

The tradition of marking the first 100 days of a presidential administration as a significant span of time dates back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term in office. After years of Herbert Hoover’s largely passive response to the Great Depression, the new president unleashed a tidal wave of dramatic measures to address the crisis. The phrase echoes the “100 days” of Napoleon Bonaparte, who returned to France from exile on Elba and ruled his former country for approximately 100 frenetic days before being defeated on the battlefield, but it’s Roosevelt’s policymaking activism that set the standards for later presidents.

And ever since, they’ve found it a difficult standard to measure up to. John Kennedy’s inaugural address even went so far as to attempt to disavow any intention of racking up a mass of early wins.

Having described his aspirations for the country, Kennedy cautioned that “all this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

But the 100 days lives on, less as a matter of real significance than as a media construct. The New York Times covered Obama’s first weeks in office with a special 100 Days blog, featuring commentary from distinguished historians comparing Obama’s approach to predecessors from Roosevelt and Kennedy to Nixon and Reagan. Most presidents have, however, recognized this hollow media construct for what it is. The circumstances of FDR’s 100 days are totally unlike anything any subsequent president has faced, and even so the most enduring achievements of the New Deal came from outside that period.

What makes Donald Trump’s 100 days, meanwhile, is not so much the lack of substantive achievement — it’s the extent to which the most superficial and media-obsessed president of all time is allowing this arbitrary construct to dictate actual policy.

FDR’s first 100 days, explained

Four key facts about Roosevelt’s famous first 100 days help explain why they set a standard that’s unrealistic — and, indeed, counterproductive — for other presidents to try to imitate:

  • Roosevelt was the last president to be inaugurated in March rather than January, so he had two extra months to get his transition organized and start doing things.
  • Roosevelt took office at a time when the country had already been suffering through a years-long depression, so there was a specific problem that was both overwhelmingly large and reasonably well-understood for him to tackle.
  • Roosevelt was backed by gigantic congressional majorities, including 60 out of 96 senators (Hawaii and Alaska weren’t states yet) and an absurd 313 out of 430 House seats.

What happened in the first 100 days was, essentially, an all-hands-on-deck effort to break the deflationary cycle that had gripped the economy for years. Part of that was proclaiming a national “bank holiday” to stop bank runs, followed by a new temporary measure in which the Federal Reserve guaranteed all bank deposits. The banks then reopened safely with no more panic.

Roosevelt also inaugurated initial versions of what became important New Deal relief programs, establishing the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Emergency Conservative Work program. These would evolve into the WPA and the CCC and provide enduring sources of last-resort employment as the economy recovered.

Perhaps most critically of all, he issued Executive Order 6102, which used a strained interpretation of the World War I-era Trading With the Enemy Act to ban the private circulation of gold coins, gold bullion, or gold certificates. This had the effect of taking the US dollar off the gold standard and allowing the administration to directly manipulate the money supply, thus bringing back inflation. It was probably the single most important measure taken to fight the Great Depression, but the modern operation of the Federal Reserve system is deliberately designed to make it impossible for the president to shift the value of money in this way.

Last, FDR’s drive to fight deflation also led him to create the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the National Industrial Recovery Act. While his gold policy was aimed at stimulating demand to raise nominal prices, AAA and NIRA tried to raise real prices by restricting the supply side of the economy. The overwhelming consensus among economists is that these measures were actually counterproductive (NIRA was scrapped soon anyway), though Gauti Eggertsson of Brown University has an argument that the conventional wisdom on this is wrong.

Barack Obama’s first 100 days

The 100 days cliché became swiftly entrenched after Roosevelt, but the fact remains that later presidents never came particularly close to mounting a similar roster of achievements. One reason is that the date of the inauguration was moved up in 1937, but it’s also no coincidence that the closest thing to another enormously consequential first 100 days came under Barack Obama.

The Great Recession of 2008 to 2009 was the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the scale of the financial shock involved was comparable. Pair that with Obama enjoying large (though not quite FDR-scale) congressional majorities, and the table was set for the passage of an enormously consequential piece of emergency legislation — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, able congressional leaders who could see Democrats’ 2008 electoral victory coming in advance, also teed-up to important pieces of legislation to be ready for immediate passage — the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Last but not least, a major public lands bill with bipartisan support had been killed in the previous Congress by veto threat by then-Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) paired with a general lack of urgency. Obama got it done to round out his first 100 days. All this adds up to a scale of achievement that’s difficult to match.

Trump’s 100 days fiasco is only kinda his fault

Donald Trump, by contrast, took office under very inauspicious circumstances for an ambitious first 100 days agenda. The GOP majorities in Congress were small, so to pass almost anything would require the collaboration of eight Democratic Party senators.

The exception to this would be a budget reconciliation bill aimed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, for which budget reconciliation instructions were available, but GOP congressional leaders hadn’t spent 2014 and 2015 ironing out a consensus agenda. Instead, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan was to execute a strategy known as “repeal and delay,” in which the law would be eliminated in favor of a totally unspecified replacement plan to be written at some unspecified future date. That plan collapsed the minute Republican Party senators understood what it would entail, and congressional Republicans were left with no Plan B.

Trump, meanwhile, is simply not facing a state of national economic emergency on the scale of Roosevelt or Obama or even Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. Americans have plenty of frustrations with the long-term trajectory of the American economy. But in a day-to-day, month-to-month sense, the economy has been growing for a while and more people are getting jobs.

His execution of the first 100 days certainly hasn’t been flawless. But the main reasons it hasn’t been legislatively productive pertain to the objective national situation and the bungling of GOP congressional leaders. Trump’s problem is that where earlier presidents have tried to lower 100 days expectations and puncture media hype, he raised expectations. He released a 100 days pledge document full of big legislative initiatives and appears to be letting a media pseudo-event dictate actual policymaking.

Trump is taking this 100 days thing too far

The Trump White House kicked off the week by turning the latest iterations in long-running US-Canadian trade disputes over softwood lumber imports and dairy exports into a major, headline-dominating news story.

Previous administrations have also engaged in tit-for-tat punitive tariffs on such matters, but have also generally tried to avoid creating a situation in which perceptions of the critical US-Canadian relationship are dominated by relatively obscure disagreements over commodities trade. They are also rushing desperately to slap together some kind of new vote on an unpopular health care initiative that remains dead on arrival in the Senate, purely for the sake of ticking a box on the 100 days checklist.

It’s surely no coincidence that the White House’s tax cut initiative rather suddenly went from zero to 60 as they passed the 90-day mark. Trump may not have taken the time to craft a tax plan that makes any kind of sense, or to fill Treasury Department tax policy jobs, or to consult with interest groups or stakeholders on Capitol Hill. But he’s definitely not going to let the history books say he let an arbitrary deadline pass without having outlined a tax proposal.