The First 100 Days
The term “first 100 days” is now so ubiquitous that there is a Pinterest board offering advice to children, teachers, and parents about how to mark the passage of the first 100 days of school.
Though the History Channel suggests the term might have roots going back to Napoleon Bonaparte’s return to Paris after exile, according to American political lore, the phrase was coined by President Franklin Roosevelt in a July 24, 1933 radio address. President Roosevelt’s first day in office was March 4, 1933; his 100th was June 11, 1933. During that time, he insisted Congress stay in session to tackle his massive economic agenda in the face of the Great Depression – and it did, passing 76 pieces of legislation between March and June of that year. In the July radio address, the commander in chief referred to this period of time as the “crowding events of the hundred days which had been devoted to the starting of the wheels of the New Deal.”
A president’s first 100 days in office are now seen as one of the most important indicators of eventual success in office. But, over time, passing legislation through Congress has become less of a focus for new residents of the White House.
In modern times, President Bill Clinton’s 100-day agenda was one of the most bold. As Johns Hopkins University political scientist Benjamin Ginsburg explained to The Washington Post at the time, the president’s goal was to make the executive branch, not Congress, “the source” for “new domestic policy initiatives.” The Post noted President Clinton had promised “an explosive, 100-day action period.” On the agenda: a total overhaul of the nation’s health care system and enactment of a robust budget that included middle-class tax cuts.
On the biggest of issues, President Clinton’s first 100 days did not produce much action. But the new commander in chief also was not successful enacting some smaller promises he had made. The Post explained, “On Haiti, [President Clinton] abandoned the pledge to allow fleeing refugees a hearing in the United States, rather than being intercepted at sea and returned home.” Additionally, “His campaign attacks on [President George H.W.] Bush’s Bosnia inaction have been replaced by Clinton and his aides lamenting the difficulty of the issue.”
Campaign rhetoric, meet practical reality.
President Clinton signed only 22 bills into law during his first 100 days in office, less than one-third the number President Roosevelt had signed during his three-month sprint and just a few more than his immediate predecessor, President George H.W. Bush, had signed in his first 100 days. As the Business Insider explained in April 2017, these 22 pieces of legislation were relatively short as well, clocking in at only 62 pages in length in total. These small bills were not health care or tax reform.
President Clinton was not the only new commander in chief who had trouble in his first three months in office.
Since President Roosevelt, presidents “have gotten significantly less productive in the law-making department in their first 100 days.” President Harry Truman signed just 55 pieces of legislation into law during his first three months. President George W. Bush only signed seven. (In June 2001, Brookings Institution scholar Paul C. Light noted, President Bush’s faith-based initiative had been “stalled for three months, beset by critics on the left and right” and his “prescription drug proposal has yet to emerge from the ongoing debate about the true size of the projected budget surplus.” Of course, that same month, President Bush signed one of the largest tax reduction packages in American history into law – so he was able to quickly keep at least one of his campaign promises.)
The politics and data website FiveThirtyEight has offered an explanation for why the pace of lawmaking in a president’s first 100 days has slowed from President Roosevelt’s terms in office. Citing research by political scientists John Frendreis, Raymond Tatalovich, and Jon Schaff, the website noted a stronger subcommittee system in Congress “added a new layer of decision-makers to the legislative process, which potentially would slow down the pace.”
As noted above, President George W. Bush did not sign many bills during his first 100 days in office. His successor, President Barack Obama, did a bit better, affixing his name to 14 pieces of legislation, including legislation that expanded health insurance coverage for children in low-income households (President Bush had vetoed a similar bill in 2007) and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was meant to combat wage discrimination.
President Obama also signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) – better known as the 2009 stimulus package – within his first 100 days. Josh Tauberer, founder of the legislative database GovTrack, told Business Insider that “bills with more words generally create government programs, and those with fewer are often rolling back regulations or programs.” The ARRA skewed to the former, as it contained 294,307 words.
President Donald Trump signed twice as many bills (29) into law during his first 100 days, but that legislation totaled only 133 pages, an average of fewer than five pages per bill, and 79,000 total words. One bill simply pledged to send humans to Mars.
The relatively slow pace of legislation might be why President Trump lashed out at the entire concept of 100 days of action, taking to Twitter to say, “No matter how much I accomplish during the ridiculous standard of the first 100 days, & it has been a lot … media will kill!” (According to CNN, President Trump was not alone in his dislike of the three-month sprint. President John F. Kennedy reportedly said, “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin!”)
There are some other memorable milestones in presidents’ first 100 days. As The History Channel has explained, on his 87th day in office, President Kennedy ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion. Less than a month into his presidency, President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. And on his first day in office, President Ronald Reagan announced the release of U.S. diplomats who had been held hostage in Iran. (Legislatively, President Reagan had a slow first 100 days. As CNN has recalled, “President Ronald Reagan was shot in the chest on his 69th day in office, and had to sign his first bill into law over a breakfast tray at the George Washington University hospital. Nonetheless, he delivered an address to a joint session of Congress on the eve of his 100th-day mark, making an argument for cutting taxes and curbing inflation.”)
Because it is not easy to get legislation through Congress, presidents often have turned to executive orders to get fast policy wins. As noted above, one of President Bush’s key objectives during his first 100 days was his faith-based initiatives. He had campaigned on them. A 2000 Bush campaign brochure promised to “reform laws and remove regulations that discourage and hamper charities and faith-based groups from delivering social services” and to allow private and religious groups “to compete to provide services in federal, state and local social programs.”
President Bush’s first two executive orders concerned this pillar of his agenda. On Jan. 29, 2001, he signed an order establishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and an order outlining federal agencies’ responsibilities regarding faith-based initiatives.
By mid-February 2001, President Bush had signed four executive orders. That pace would have astonished the nation’s founders. According to the University of California-Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project, President George Washington issued only eight executive orders in his entire eight years in office. Presidents John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe signed only one each.
Executive orders have indeed become more popular in recent presidential history. Politifact explained that President Trump “signed 220 executive orders during his four years in office” while “throughout their eight-year administrations, [Presidents] Obama signed 276 executive orders and George W. Bush signed 291.”)
On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed nine executive orders on issues ranging from discrimination based on gender identity to climate change to immigration and COVID-19. As of this writing, President Biden is up to 28 executive orders in his first 14 days in office.
And while everyone from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to The New York Times editorial board has criticized the pace of President Biden’s orders, but he is hardly alone in history.
According to KSL.com reporter Carter Williams, “The first real jump of executive orders came during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era. While [President Abraham] Lincoln issued what was at the time a record of 48 himself, Andrew Johnson issued 79 in less than four years after Lincoln. Ulysses Grant then issued 217 in eight years.”
By the 20th century the practice had taken off. President Theodore Roosevelt issued more than 1,000 orders while his distant cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt, “still holds the record for most executive orders issued and most on average.” While also getting significant legislation through Congress, FDR also issued 3,721 executive orders during a span lasting a little over 12 years.” His average was 307 per year.
It is likely no coincidence that both President Biden and President Roosevelt were facing some of the worst economies in American history when they took office. Whether President Biden will have at his disposal a Congress willing and able to enact his legislative priorities, as President Roosevelt did, remains to be seen.