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5 great presidential starts — and 5 historically bad ones

Franklin D. Roosevelt
FDR’s first 100 days set a standard that has cursed his successors
Underwood Archives / Getty

When Donald Trump called the 100 days mark for judging a presidency a “ridiculous standard,” he was echoing what historians have said for years. If anything, he could have gone further. The habit of weighing a president’s success 100 days in is a blight on the modern presidency, as pointless as it is impossible to uproot.

Journalists will never dump the convention, because it’s such an easy hook. Politicians will never dump it, because in the middle of a campaign it’s too tempting to reel off a wish list for their first days in the White House.

The only president who ever really benefited from the 100-day benchmark is the one who invented it. Looking back at the first few months of his presidency, Franklin Roosevelt liked what he saw: the Federal Emergency Relief Act was getting aid to the poor and unemployed, the Civilian Conservation Corps was creating new jobs, the Agricultural Adjustment Act was helping stabilize farm prices. So he took to the radio, touted the success of his first 100 days, and in the process created an albatross for each of his successors, who found themselves on an artificial, and impossible, timetable.

The list that follows of the five presidents with the best first 100 days and the five with the worst reveals how arbitrary — and yes, how ridiculous — the standard really is. At the same time it does help put President Trump’s accomplishments into some kind of historical context. (Trump famously boasted, in week 11, of having “one of the most successful 13 weeks in the history of the presidency.”)

The best

1) Franklin Roosevelt: We could talk about his raft of legislative achievements or his resuscitation of the national mood or his savvy promise to engage in “bold persistent experimentation.” We could talk about the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a regional energy project that revolutionized the countryside by bringing power to neglected communities. We could talk about the Emergency Banking Act, which restored confidence in a collapsing American banking system. We could talk about his historic decision to move the US off the gold standard. But all you really need to know about FDR’s first 100 days is this: It was so successful that it became the yardstick by which all future presidents would be measured.

2) George Washington: A no-brainer. Unanimously elected, widely beloved, Washington came into office buoyed by a tremendous amount of goodwill. And unlike certain other commanders in chief, he could truthfully describe every action in the first 100 days as the first, the best, the most important thing a US president had ever done. As the National Review’s Richard Brookhiser notes, even the small things were precedent-setting: Should presidents be referred to as “Mister” or “Your Highness”? Should they shake hands or bow? Every decision Washington made in his first 100 days was another step toward turning the idea of an American government into a reality.

In his first few months, Washington signed the first tariff act, endorsed the controversial Bill of Rights, and established the Departments of Foreign Affairs and of War. He even struck a blow against nepotism in government, turning down his nephew’s request to be named a US attorney. And he did all this despite falling seriously ill with an infection that kept him incapacitated for nearly a month.

3) Thomas Jefferson: The first thing to understand about the 100-days standard is that it’s not a level playing field. Timing is everything.

To wit: Jefferson got through his first 100 days without being deposed in a violent coup. That’s really all he needed to do in order to ensure he landed near the top of the pile. When George Washington decided not to run for a third term, John Adams came into office as his hand-picked successor and a fellow member of the Federalist Party.

But Jefferson was the real test, because it required the Federalists to willingly hand power over to their rivals, the Democratic-Republicans. By the end of his first 100 days, it was clear that he had been accepted as a legitimate president. And that meant that the United States had successfully transferred power from one party to another, a crucial test for a fledgling democracy. Next to that, Jefferson’s early political moves — for example, his refusal to pay Tripoli the tribute it had demanded, an act that triggered the First Barbary War — pale.

William H. Harrison in his deathbed
For a bad first 100 days, William H. Harrison sets the standard.
Library of Congress

4) Ronald Reagan: Here’s one contemporary assessment of Reagan’s first 100 days: “Mr. Reagan has established his goals faster, communicated a greater sense of economic urgency and come forward with more comprehensive proposals than any new President since the first 100 days of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” That was from the New York Times, hardly the house organ of the Reagan White House.

A Reagan critic at the Washington Post similarly marked the occasion: “To someone who has had and still has deep reservations about the political character and intent of President Reagan, it is nonetheless undeniable that one of the most intriguing attempts to accomplish a genuine transition is today taking place before our very eyes.”

In his first 100 days, Reagan made moves to establish his small-government bona fides, signing a major budget cut package, pushing for executive-branch cost reductions, and pledging to shrink the federal workforce. But high marks from his critics? That’s probably the best evidence that Reagan nailed his 100-days exam.

Also, he got shot. That didn’t have much bearing on the success of his first 100 days, but it’s one of the crazier things to happen in the first few months of a presidency. And it also solidified Reagan’s reputation among his supporters for wit and calm in the face of crisis. As he was wheeled into the operating room, he joked to the surgeons, “Please tell me you’re Republicans.”

5) Barack Obama: Like Trump, Obama distanced himself from the 100-days metric while working like mad to excel by the standard. Circumstances helped. With the global economy in free fall, a solid Democratic majority in Congress, and substantial public support, Obama had both an opportunity and a mandate (or at least he claimed one), and he ran with them.

He guided a stimulus package worth nearly $800 billion through Congress, signed into law an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, expanded protections for equal-pay lawsuits with the Lily Ledbetter Act, signed an executive order to close Guantanamo, banned torture (or re-banned it). Whatever one thinks about the years that followed, that’s an impressive scorecard for a brief window of time.

The worst

1) William Henry Harrison: On balance, being dead more days than alive is a pretty bad track record for the first 100 days. Harrison was sworn into office on March 4, 1841. By April 4, he was dead.

An added indignity: While his quick demise is the only thing most people know about the Harrison, they almost always get the cause of death wrong, blaming it on pneumonia contracted during his long-winded inaugural address. But Harrison didn’t fall ill until three weeks after the inauguration, and recent findings suggest that he actually died of enteric fever, a result of the White House’s close proximity to a dumping ground for human waste. That particular swamp was drained and closed in 1850. (And yes, I know you’re thinking up a joke about Congress after reading “the White House’s close proximity to a dumping ground for human waste.” Go ahead, but know you’re basically dunking on a six-foot rim.)

2) Abraham Lincoln: Look, I like him, too. But within six weeks of Lincoln’s inauguration, the nation had collapsed into civil war. It was hardly his fault, but the 100-days standard is a harsh and uncompromising one, and having 11 states in full rebellion by day 100 puts him near the bottom of the pile.

Sorry, Abe. Like the rest of us, you deserve better than the 100-days measure. But thanks to FDR, you’re stuck with it.

3) John Kennedy: Kennedy spent his entire 1960 campaign berating the Eisenhower administration for its foreign policy weaknesses, particularly on Cuba. But as soon as he landed in office, the bright young Cold Warrior immediately face-planted.

Using plans developed by the CIA under Eisenhower, on April 4, 1961, Kennedy okayed the Bay of Pigs invasion, the CIA-backed effort to help a group of counter-revolutionaries to invade Cuba and depose Fidel Castro. When it got underway on day 88 of his young presidency, he then failed to provide the air cover he had promised, stranding the invading forces. More than 100 of the counter-revolutionaries were killed in the failed invasion. Twelve hundred more were captured.

Not only was the failed invasion humiliating for the new president, it set off a chain of events that would culminate in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world came to nuclear warfare during the Cold War. Not an auspicious start.

Ronald Reagan
Even his critics in the press had good things to say about the start of President Reagan’s first term

4) Gerald Ford: Ford came into office under the right conditions for an effective first 100 days. The nation was struggling through both a political crisis and an economic downturn. Like Roosevelt and Obama, Ford leapt into action. At least, he created the appearance of action. He convened an economic summit — even televised it, because what American doesn’t want to watch to two days of economists talking? — and then gave Congress a 31-point plan to address the stagnant economy. He also created a team to address the energy crisis and urged Americans to consume less fuel. When an aide sent Don Rumsfeld, then-White House chief of staff, a write-up of these efforts to promote Ford’s first 100 days, Rumsfeld scrawled on the top, “Not very profound.”

But Ford did do something profound in his first 100 days: He killed his reelection chances. It’s not easy to undercut a reelection bid within a few months of taking office. Only one other president has done it. (RIP, William Henry Harrison.) But when Ford signed Richard Nixon’s pardon, he did just that. His approval rating, which sat at 71 percent when he took office, plummeted 21 percentage points immediately after the pardon. And they kept dropping, hitting 37 percent four months later.

The pardon was almost certainly the right thing to do, even though at the time the majority of Americans opposed it. But what’s good for the nation and what’s good for the 100-day mark are not always the same thing.

5) Donald Trump: You knew this was coming. He came into office with historically low approval ratings, which have continued to drop. On the campaign trail he drew up an agenda for his first 100 days, most of which he subsequently ignored. The two big promises he attempted to meet failed in spectacular fashion: Federal judges twice knocked down his travel ban, and the health care bill was so poorly thought through it never even made it to the House floor for a vote. The Syria strike, the one thing that earned him bipartisan approval, was a reversal of his campaign-trail pledge to stay out of Middle Eastern wars.

Trump’s defenders argue that the presidency has a steep learning curve, especially for someone who’s never held elected office before. But when the best defense of your first 100 days is that maybe you learned enough that the next 100 won’t be as bad, it’s a pretty good sign you’re at the back of the pack.

But here’s the good news for Trump: It doesn’t matter! The first 100 days don’t make or break a presidency. Unless you’re William Henry Harrison.

Nicole Hemmer, a Vox columnist, is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Present podcast.


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