If presidential impact were measured in articles about the first 100 days, Donald Trump would be well on his way to surpassing all of his predecessors. And the Newtonian law of modern media is that for every genre of coverage, there will be a genre of meta-coverage. At this point, there might be as many articles defending or decrying the “first 100 days” as a meaningful or useful marker as there are pieces evaluating what Trump has actually done in this historic window.
There’s little doubt that the 100-day window itself is arbitrary; as my colleague Andy Rudalevige said on a panel last week at Drury University’s Meador Center, there’s nothing special about day 100 as opposed to day 98 or day 102. On the other hand, there’s something substantive about checking in at a point when the administration has had some time to set its tone and priorities but things are still new.
An underappreciated aspect of the first 100 days conversation is that it helps situate a new president in history. Sifting through coverage of the first 100 days for modern presidents, I saw journalists placing presidents into historical context in several ways. There was the comparison to the productivity and accomplishments of other presidents, of course. One writer for the Washington Post pointed out that Nixon was less popular than either LBJ or JFK (Marquis Childs, writing on April 23, 1969), and another observed that he was less visible (Don Oberdorfer, in a piece that appeared on April 27, 1969). (I don’t have links to these pieces because they’re in a proprietary news archive that I accessed through Marquette’s library.)
These didn’t always put the current president in an unfavorable light either; as I noted in this piece, JFK’s own adviser and speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, wrote that it was better for George Bush (41) to have done little than to have other presidents making bad decisions, including Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco. Other historical comparisons were simply factual, such as the observation that Nixon was the first president since James K. Polk to come into office with both houses of Congress controlled by the other party. And many of the history references didn’t have much real substance, just a reminder that the first 100 days concept was part of FDR’s legacy, in many cases accompanied by reminders that FDR’s circumstances were unique.
It can be difficult to measure how presidents use history, or how others use it to put them in context. But it’s important precisely because of how disruptive and idiosyncratic presidential leadership can be. These first months of a new administration, even under presidents more conventional than Trump, are often chaotic and unstable. Presidents nearly always bring changes in tone, personnel, and policy direction, and there’s a learning curve as they adapt to an office that is like no other. Historical context helps remind an unsettled electorate of the stability provided by the institution, and that the polity has weathered such bumps before.
However, this kind of coverage and contextualization doesn’t appear to be even across all presidents. My historical newspaper digging revealed less of this kind of 100 days coverage for Jimmy Carter than for other presidents before and after him. There could be a number of reasons for this, but it’s consistent with the “politics of disjunction.” I’ve argued here that by virtue of the timing of his presidency, Trump will likely share this leadership position with Carter — along with earlier presidents like Herbert Hoover and Franklin Pierce.
Relative inattention to historical context makes a certain kind of sense for presidents in this position. (Note: I’m not equating Carter or Hoover to Trump in terms of his evident … gaps in the area of history. Carter is clearly cerebral and well-read, and Hoover was too. Use of history is not identical to understanding it.)
As the scholar behind the political time approach, Stephen Skowronek, has pointed out, disjunctive presidents tend to be political outsiders and “loners” who have made their political careers outside existing factions and removed in time from their parties’ reconstructive icons. Their main struggle isn’t to connect with past great presidents or to link creative destruction to tradition and the Constitution (as reconstructive leaders often do) — it’s to adapt a worn set of governing values, along with a fractured coalition, to new and often confounding problems.
In policy terms, think of it this way. The Republican political tradition of tariffs and pro-business government intervention gave Hoover little guidance for dealing with the Depression. The ideals of the New Deal provided little to help Carter address the economic woes of the 1970s, new foreign policy crises, or the post-Watergate slump in national morale. For Trump’s part, it’s likely the case that cutting taxes will do little to address deindustrialization and economic inequality.
These presidents find themselves locked in immediacy in a way that’s different from their counterparts. Even before the Depression hit in October 1929 and redefined Hoover’s presidency, his political identity as a technocratic problem solver was evident in his inaugural address, which, unlike his predecessors’ speeches, focused heavily on the practical problems of the nation and the mandate of the election, without reference to the Constitution or the nation’s founding.
Carter’s 1977 inaugural included more history, but the overall politics of his administration stand out as especially immediate compared with others around the same time. An obsession with FDR’s accomplishments fueled LBJ’s ambition. Reconnecting with old constitutional values underpinned the “Reagan revolution.”
In contrast, Carter was trying new things: a new infusion of morality into foreign and domestic policy, ethics in government, attention to energy and environmentalism. Carter and his advisers didn’t invent any of these things, of course, but they were rarely presented in terms of past precedent or tradition. There is something about the disjunctive presidency — the problems it faces and the tools it has to address them — that defies the comfort of history.
And who is more immediate — less historically oriented — than Trump? (Between when I drafted this and when I posted it, this happened.) His challenges in recalling and contextualizing basic facts of US history have been well-documented by writers of varying degrees of smugness, and there’s no need for me to rehash them at length here. However, ideological differences are worth pointing out.
Carter and Hoover were both coming from essentially progressive traditions, in the sense that both traditions were rooted in looser readings of the Constitution and in the use of government to address the problems of a changing society — to expand rights and adapt the economy to industrial pressures and environmental concerns. Trump’s message — and that of the party he now leads — is more preservationist. The idea of the original Constitution is a potent symbol for the conservative movement.
This particular combination is a challenge — what does it mean to preserve the nation’s greatness without specific reference to the Constitution, the nation’s founders, or the iconic figures of our political tradition?
We have more than 1,000 days left to find out. Placing Trump in the long, winding story of presidential trial and error would certainly be comforting. The facts of his presidency defy such classification — both those specific to him and those that mark him as a possible disjunctive leader. At 100 days, for every aspect of Trump’s presidency that looks like a typical new executive or a standard Republican, we get at least one thing that reminds us how little he is tethered to party, ideology, or governing traditions. The familiar 100 days patter might bring a little relief, but it can only do so much.