Wall Street Journal


The Legend of the President’s First Hundred Days

Franklin D. Roosevelt invented the idea of an activist sprint from the start of a presidency, and many of his successors have followed his example.  Will Donald Trump make his own early splash?

President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the template for the opening act of an activist administration.  Photo:  UIG/Getty images

Updated Jan. 13, 2017 11:54 a.m. ET

What will Donald Trump’s first hundred days bring:  surprises, achievements, catastrophes?  A slow, steady warm-up?

History can’t predict the mix, only offer a range of possibilities for the 45th president.  For Mr. Trump, the range is wider than usual because he comes into office untethered by a record and uninformed by experience.

The initial “hundred days” as a distinct period in a presidency was first used to describe the special session of Congress called by Franklin D. Roosevelt in March 1933.  It set the template for the opening act of an activist administration:  a president and his allies (really subordinates) in Congress passing a bold program to address a crisis.  The president, if not the program, is then enshrined in myth.

Roosevelt’s crisis was the Great Depression, which had festering for 3½ years.  Unemployment was over 20%, and the banking system had collapsed.  In his inaugural address, Roosevelt said, “This nation asks for action, and action now.”

Between March 9 and June 17, Roosevelt signed into law a heterogeneous package of initiatives.  The Agriculture Department would pay farmers not to plant crops.  The Civilian Conservation Corps would pay people to plant trees.  The Federal Emergency Relief Administration was designed to oversee welfare programs, the Tennessee Valley Authority to build dams and supply electricity in a backward part of the country.  The National Industrial Recovery Act gave the president sweeping power to regulate the economy.

These measures were delivered by a Congress with Democratic supermajorities in both the Senate and the House.  There were ideological supermajorities too, since conservative Southern Democrats prone to balk at radical reform were offset by progressive western Republicans raring to go.

A crucial feature of Roosevelt’s program was the aura of myth he spun around it.  The presidency, he had told a reporter during the campaign, “is more than an engineering job….  It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.”  Roosevelt’s rhetoric fulfilled this mandate.  It was simultaneously patrician and populist, devout without being sectarian, urgent without ever committing him to too many details.

His looks and his voice did the rest.  His sunrise smile shone through photographs and newsreels, and he addressed the country in 15- to 30-minute radio broadcasts, the fireside chats.  Speechwriter Sam Rosenman described the tone of Roosevelt’s chats as “an informal conversation with one or two of his friends.”  Roosevelt delivered three of them during the spring and summer of 1933, telling Americans “what has been done in the last few days, why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be.”  In his third chat on July 24 he christened the legislative spurt that had just ended “the crowding events of the hundred days.”

Over the years, Roosevelt’s mythmaking would be reinforced by admiring bards and court historians, from Archibald MacLeish to Arthur Schlesinger Jr.  But his main mythmaker was himself.

Most presidents before FDR spent their first hundred days feeling their way into the job.

The sprint from the starting line is not the only model for beginning an administration.  Most presidents before FDR spent their first hundred days feeling their way into the job—none more consequentially than George Washington in 1789.  Washington could consult the new Constitution for the legal specifications of his new office.  But a constitution is not a flesh-and-blood example.  Should a president shake hands at receptions?  Should he seek the Senate’s advice on treaties by going to the Senate himself and asking for it?  No one knew.  Washington had to answer such questions day by day himself.

A few unfortunate presidents have been so bombarded by disaster that they hardly had time for thought or planning, much less slipping into the job.  Seven states seceded between Abraham Lincoln’s election and his inauguration; four more bolted during his hundred days.  One grim morning in April 1861, as he desperately awaited the arrival of loyal troops in an undefended capital city ringed by secessionists, he complained, “I don’t believe there is any North.”

But FDR’s example inspired his successors, chiefly Democrats hoping to join him in the liberal pantheon (and in the winners’ circle of re-election landslides).

Bill Clinton in 1993 faced no true crisis.  His predecessor, George H.W. Bush, had presided over a recession that was already beginning to lift by the time of Mr. Clinton’s inauguration.  But Mr. Clinton had ambitions and sizable Democratic majorities in Congress.  He tapped into myth by taking a bus to his inauguration from Monticello (the bus had been his signature campaign vehicle, and Jefferson was his middle name).  Fellow baby boomers in the press hailed him as a generational transformer.

Five days into his term, he made his bid for greatness by announcing a task force on comprehensive health-care reform, to be chaired by Ira Magaziner and Hillary Clinton.  “I am certain,” Mr. Clinton said, “that in coming months the American people will learn—as the people of Arkansas did—just what a great first lady they have.”

Barack Obama signing two executive orders on Jan. 26, 2009.  Photo:  Larry Downing/Reuters

Barack Obama in 2009 faced real hard times—a crisis of the financial system.  Congress and his predecessor, George W. Bush, fearing a second Depression, had already passed a $700 billion bank and credit bailout the year before.  Mr. Obama, enjoying Democratic congressional majorities as large as Mr. Clinton’s, saw and raised with a $787 billion stimulus bill in February.  In April and May (to stretch the hundred days a bit), Chrysler and General Motors filed for bankruptcy, setting up the auto bailout of July.

Unlike FDR and Mr. Clinton, Mr. Obama also made dramatic foreign policy moves.  “I am not opposed to all wars,” he had declared as early as 2002, only “to dumb wars,” by which he meant the war in Iraq.  He began withdrawing American troops in February and announced that he would not stop.  “Let me say this as plainly as I can:  By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end.”

Republican presidents have tended to eschew the dramatics of the first hundred days, sliding calmly into office.  George H.W. Bush in 1989 was encouraged to go slow by temperament, politics and timing.  During his campaign, he had promised a “kinder, gentler nation.”  Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress imposed caution, if not kindness, upon him.

And global upheavals beyond his control forced him into a spectator’s role.  During his first hundred days, Poland’s Communist government legalized Solidarity, and Chinese students began protesting in Tiananmen Square.  China’s liberation movement would be drowned in blood, but Eastern Europe’s would topple a half-dozen Soviet satrapies and the Berlin Wall before 1989 was over.

George W. Bush, though a brasher man than his father, also came into office in 2001 speaking softly.  Minute Republican majorities in Congress—a Senate dependent on Vice President Dick Cheney’s tiebreaker and a 10-vote margin in the House—restrained him.  The signature proposals of his first hundred days—the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and the No Child Left Behind Act—were small-bore welfare programs wrapped in social-conservative rhetoric.

Ronald Reagan used his hundred days to focus on the economy.  Photo:  NewsWire/Getty Images

Among recent Republicans, only Ronald Reagan in 1981, perhaps reflecting his youthful admiration for Franklin Roosevelt, adopted the Democrat’s model.  Reagan faced a double crisis:  stagflation at home and communism on the march abroad, from Afghanistan to Africa.  He used his hundred days to focus on the economy, proposing to cut tax rates and the rate of growth of the budget.

Although Reagan enjoyed a partisan majority only in the Senate, he worked with conservative House Democrats.  His budget and tax packages would not pass until the summer, but his advocacy during the hundred days was vital to their success.

What Reagan excelled at, more than any other president since Roosevelt, was making his own myth.  If Roosevelt was the patrician reformer, Reagan was the small-town optimist.  A veteran of radio, Hollywood and what he called the mashed-potato circuit, he knew how to project his personality via the camera and the mic.  As a speechmaker, he was a master of quiet beginnings, holding himself back to draw his listeners and viewers in.

The first hundred days do not necessarily forecast the rest of a presidency.

He was helped by a near-death experience.  John Hinckley’s assassination attempt outside the Washington Hilton Hotel on March 30, 1981, was a command performance that no screenwriter would have dared to invent.  Rushed to George Washington University Hospital, Reagan insisted on walking into the emergency room by himself even though he had a bullet in his chest.  Inside, he cracked jokes.  “I hope you are all Republicans,” he told the surgical team before they operated on him.  “Today, Mr. President,” the lead doctor, a Democrat, assured him, “we are all Republicans.”  Woody Allen famously said that 80% of celebrity is showing up.  One hundred percent of leadership is showing up, and saying or doing the right thing.

The first hundred days do not necessarily forecast the rest of a presidency.  Roosevelt found the Depression hard to subdue.  Reagan’s budget and tax cuts were followed by a recession.  Mr. Clinton’s health-care task force ground to failure by the summer of 1994.  George W. Bush’s compassion agenda was shoved aside by 9/11.

Skillful presidents recover from such reverses.  Roosevelt became a heroic wartime leader in his third term.  Reagan’s recession gave way to a roaring recovery.  Others muddle along.

President-elect Donald Trump speaking at a news conference at Trump Tower on Jan. 11, 2017.  Photo:  Spencer Platt/Getty Images

What does this mean for Donald Trump’s first days in power?  He faces a number of crises, more inchoate than Reagan’s or Obama’s, but nagging.  The economy has recovered slowly since 2008, and Americans are not happy with it.  Bad actors roam the world, from lunatics (North Korea) to old rivals (Russia, China) to rampaging jihadists.

Trump has solid Republican majorities on Capitol Hill—52-48 in the Senate, 241-194 in the House.  But will all Republicans always be in his corner.  The Freedom Caucus in the House, which claims to represent the spirit of the Tea Party, has some 30 members.  “Freedom” is a word Mr. Trump seldom uses and hardly seems to know.  Yet these congressmen represent districts that were solid for Mr. Trump in the fall.  Will they follow their principles or their leader?

The great question mark is Mr. Trump’s program.  His only policy preference of long standing is to be tough on trade; he was saying so in the 1980s, when the free-trade peril was Japan, not China.  Curbing immigration was such a central issue in his campaign that he could not backtrack on it without shame.  Every other position he has taken or pledge he has made is written on air, unsupported by a record of advocacy or evidence of thought.

Mr. Trump’s greatest strength, and potential weakness, is his skill as a mythmaker.  The cartoonist Scott Adams, who predicted in 2015 that Mr. Trump would win the presidency in a landslide, speaks of his power to persuade by insistently repeating large and simple ideas.  In his late 60s, Mr. Trump mastered a social medium, Twitter, that is dominated by younger people—not in the spirit of moms posting adorable GIFs of their kids but with the uninhibited brio of gamer guys or high-school mean girls.

Mr. Trump is a master of the effects of words, of how they amuse and wound; of the meaning, not so much.  Since there is always another tweet coming, who cares what the last one said?  That works for an entertainer, or even for a politician whose only concern is hogging the limelight—but not for a politician who wants to leave a legacy.

Can he keep it up?  As an old man, John Adams wrote that George Washington had possessed “the gift of silence.  This I esteem as one of the most precious talents.”  The gift of silence allows a leader to conceal his purposes and forces opponents to reveal theirs.  It gives the public a chance to catch its breath.  Mr. Trump may come to regret that he never acquired it.

My instinct about Mr. Trump’s instincts is that he will want bold strokes soon.  Start building a fence, if not a wall.  Talk up infrastructure, even if no plans are in place yet.  Nominate a surprising Supreme Court justice (Ted Cruz?).  Make splashy, friendly trips to Israel, to Britain (in need of friends post-Brexit) and, if not to Russia, to some in-between rendezvous with Vladimir Putin, for a possible deal:  You take Ukraine, the West keeps the Baltics, and together we’ll bomb Islamic State.

Mr. Trump’s first hundred days are harder to predict than any other president’s because he is unprecedented.  Every previous president had held a position of public responsibility, either as a politician or a general.  Donald Trump, uniquely, has no experience of leadership, and we have no experience of him leading.  He doesn’t yet know what he is doing, and we have no way of knowing what he might do.

Cheer up—after the first hundred days, there are only 1,361 left.

Mr. Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “Founders’ Son:  A Life of Abraham Lincoln.”