As we approach President Biden’s first 100 days in office many will use the occasion to evaluate his performance. Why 100 days? There is no constitutional or statutory significance to the first 100 days of a president’s term. In the first hundred and forty-four years of the Republic no one made a big deal about the 100-day mark. It is a somewhat arbitrary and artificial milestone. David Alexrod, a top aide to President Obama once called it a “Hallmark Holiday”—lots of attention but no significance.
So where did this come from and why do we still talk about it?
It came from the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Elected in the midst of a great depression, Roosevelt kept out of the fray during the long transition period between Election Day 1932 and Inauguration Day on March 4, 1933. According to historians, his sense of political theater led him to avoid President Hoover’s attempts to involve him in dealing with the overwhelming crises before the country. Thus he successfully orchestrated a complete break from the past and a new start with the American people.
FDR’s ability to talk to America is without equal in the 20th century and in 1933 it was an especially dramatic contrast to the stern and uncaring policies of his predecessor Herbert Hoover, who had vetoed several relief bills. Roosevelt’s inaugural address is memorable for the phrase “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” And less than two weeks after that he gave the first of many fireside chats—explaining over the radio, in simple terms, what was happening to Americans and how he would fix it.
But Roosevelt’s rhetoric and mastery of the new medium of radio were not what made him the president who is remembered for the first 100 days. It was the breathtaking scope of bold and new actions, both legislative and regulatory, that set the bar so high. To name but a few: in those 100 days he declared a bank holiday which stopped the disastrous run on the banks, he took America off the gold standard, and he passed groundbreaking legislation for farmers and homeowners and for the unemployed. He also passed amendments to the hated Volstead Act which had created prohibition. Immediately, “beer parties” were held all over the country in celebration.
Ever since, presidents have been evaluated for their performance in the first 100 days. Suffice it to say that few have lived up to Roosevelt. Ronald Reagan probably comes closest of all the presidents since then—a combination of skill and luck. His administration began with the release of the hostages that had been held in Iran by Islamic radicals. No clearer contrast could be drawn between him and the unlucky President Jimmy Carter, whose last year in office was clouded by the hostage crisis that he could not control and that he could not end. Although Reagan had little to do with ending the crisis, he came in with a clean slate.
Like Roosevelt, Reagan was a masterful communicator with a bold plan of action. While Roosevelt’s plans didn’t follow any coherent ideology—early on he was fiscally conservative while expanding the welfare state—Reagan’s plans did. Before becoming president he’d spent decades honing and preaching the conservative ideology that was to become such a powerful force in American politics and he believed he had a mandate to roll back the welfare state. Within weeks of his inauguration he had proposed a sweeping agenda “…in a package of proposals including 83 major program changes, 834 amendments to the budget this year and next, 151 lesser budgetary actions and 60 additional pieces of legislation.” In the middle of his first 100 days he survived an assassination attempt, adding to his mystique and increasing his popularity.
But few presidents get…