The “Ridiculous” 100-Day Standard for Presidents


Franklin Roosevelt’s legislative agenda to fight the Great Depression started the 100-day time period that all the following Presidencies have been evaluated (Public Doman: Wikimedia)

Ever since Franklin Roosevelt took office during the midst of the Great Depression in 1933, Presidents have been held to a 100 days standard. The argument is that a newly inaugurated President has a unique opportunity early in his Presidency to push through his agenda. A President’s popularity is rarely as high as during his first months in office unless a national disaster such as a 9/11 comes along.

Donald Trump’s Presidency has been marred by disorganization and a obvious failure to pass key legislation such as the repeal of Obamacare. As Trump’s hundredth day approaches, the national media has drawn attention to his ineffectiveness. Trump has responded by calling it a “ridiculous standard” and claimed to be in “no particular rush” to push through healthcare reform. That followed a statement that there would a vote on a revised healthcare bill in a few days. After Republican Congressional leaders pushed back, Trump retracted the need to rush the bill through Congress.

Trump’s criticism of the 100-day standard would carry a lot more weight if it wasn’t overtly self-serving. Just a few days ago, while in Wisconsin, Trump claimed that “no administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days.” During the campaign, Trump also mentioned the many accomplishments that he would achieve in his Presidencies initial days. At numerous campaign rallies, Trump said, “imagine what we can accomplish in the first 100 days of a Trump administration.” During the Republican National Convention, Trump stated that he would ask in the first 100 days of a Trump administration for every federal government department to provide him wasteful programs to be eliminated. Both promises have fallen short.

Trump has clearly bought into the 100-day agenda notion, at least up to his 90 days. Then, upon realizing that his only major Congressional accomplishment was Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation, Trump has tried to back peddle. Getting Gorsuch confirmed, while a long-lasting influence for years to come, really wasn’t in doubt with Republican control of the Senate.

Trump has enacted a number of executive orders that are having major impacts on American life from the Keystone Pipeline to lowering climate change protections to revoking Barack Obama’s fair pay rules to Trump’s legally troubled travel ban. All together, Trump initiated 25 executive orders. This puts him close to the period between Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman when Presidents would sometimes issue hundreds of executive orders a year.  Since then, the highest number of executive orders came from Jimmy Carter who issued 80 per year. Barack Obama has had the lowest number of executive orders on a yearly average since Grover Cleveland in the late nineteenth century. Trump is on a path to exceed Obama’s average in a couple of months. At the pace that he is on, he will average about 100 executive orders a year.

Yet, executive orders, as influential as they may be, are not the standard by which a President’s first 100 days are measured. Signed laws are the standard. While Trump has signed into law 28 bills, notable legislation is lacking. Many are resolutions appointing people to positions such as the Board of Regents for the Smithsonian Institute. Others, like the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, are significant at improving weather forecasting, but hardly qualify as groundbreaking legislation. Trump’s signing of legislation reducing privacy protections on the Internet is another significant piece of law, but hardly something to hang the success of a Presidency’s first 100 days.

Trump’s 28 signed laws are the highest of any President since Harry Truman’s 55 and FDR’s 76. Trump just edges John Kennedy’s 26 and Bill Clinton’s 24  signed laws in the first 100 days. However, FDR came into office during the middle of the Great Depression. Truman assumed office just as World War II was ending. Those were momentous times with a need for far-reaching legislation.

While many like to point to the lack of substantial legislation as an indication of flailing administration, that is not necessarily a harbinger for future accomplishments. FDR continued with significant legislation throughout his Presidency. Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act towards the end of his first term. Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 six months into his Presidency. Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts didn’t become law until August of that year. Barack Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act wasn’t signed until he was well in his second year in office. Many consequential presidencies only signed a handful of laws in the first 100 days. Reagan did 9. Richard Nixon also signed 9. Johnson had 10 pieces of legislation.

The legislative success of a President’s first 100 days rests less on the popularity that a President rides into office in and the ambitiousness of his agenda and more on factors outside his control. Times of crisis, as with FDR and Truman, prompt significant legislation. Having the President’s own party in control of Congress also helps. That is probably the most noticeable element of Trump’s somewhat inept first 100 days. The Republicans control the House, Senate and Presidency. Yet, they haven’t been able to push through much prominent legislation. That may signal that the Republican-controlled government may bumble along and achieve little until the 2018 elections. On the other hand, they may string together a row of significant legislation as the year progresses. To assert that Trump is on a track to failure is far to early to claim. As 2018 approaches, the window for that legislation will close, but there is still a long way to go.

The first 100 days of a Presidency is simply an artificial milestone. To weigh the success or failure by accomplishments made in that short time frame is a distraction and needless preoccupation with the nice even number of 100. It will be many months before anyone knows how this Presidency will be defined. George W. Bush’s Presidency wasn’t defined for eight months until the 9/11 attacks. Kennedy’s Presidency wasn’t defined by its first 100 days when the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation was conducted. For once, when Trump says that the first 100 days is a “ridiculous standard,” he is right. It is too bad for himself that he spent a year-and-a-half campaigning and the first 90 days of his administration suggesting that it was significant. Trump’s recent reversal of how significant those first days are is probably one of the most significant developments of the first 100 days. It shows that he hasn’t grown into the job or learned to keep his foot out of his mouth.

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