Transitions between presidencies are, by definition, ephemeral. So are the first 100 days of a president. But, while they last, both are assumed to be portentous, especially the latter.
The gold standard for both was set in the winter of 1932-33, which just happened to include taking the US off the gold standard.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to wait four months to take over from Herbert Hoover and his transition to power was marked by an almost complete breakdown of communication with the outgoing administration, during which time the Depression deepened rapidly, with banks around the country closing their doors at the rate of nine a day from October to January.
FDR, though governor of New York, was no policy wonk but his instincts told him that if he won the presidency, radical action would be required. So he assembled in early 1932 his own brains trust, comprised of Columbia University academics to think about policy options.
As Prof Anthony J Badger of Cambridge University writes in his excellent account of FDR’s first 100 days*, “none of them believed that traditional economic theory corresponded to the reality of American economic experience. Nor did they believe the Depression to be international in origin,” a commonly held view at the time. Rather it “was the result of basic structural flaws in the domestic economy” – maldistribution of wealth, farm income and wages that were too low and industrial prices that were too rigid.
Their policy prescriptions were less precise, but they provided FDR with the intellectual framework he needed as he prepared for the presidency after beating Hoover. It required his incurable optimism, his eye for recruiting the best talent and his willingness to roll the gambler’s dice even when flying almost blind to bring together what came to be known as the New Deal, so much of it translated into innovative legislation in his first 100 days.
The New Deal was a slow growing miracle and the economy only really began to hum when the US entered the second world war in 1941. But no new president since FDR has entered office without the expectation that the first 100 days constitute the best chance to get off on the right foot. With the economy as fragile as at any time since FDR took over, Barack Obama must feel the weight of history.
John F Kennedy addressed precisely these expectations in his inaugural address in 1961, arguably the best such speech apart from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural in 1865. “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days,” he said, “nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor, perhaps, in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”
In early April 1965, Lyndon Johnson scribbled a note to his congressional liaison chief telling him to “jerk out every damn little bill you can and get them down here [to the White House for signature] by the 12th” because “on the 12th you’ll have the best Hundred Days. Better than he [FDR] did!” His actual achievements – Medicare and the Voting Rights Act among them – were of comparable dimension, but he had won a landslide in the wake of JFK’s assassination.
The ever fretful Richard Nixon created a One Hundred Days group because “after 100 days, the dam against criticism comes crashing down and 80 days have gone by already”. Every president since has subscribed to the mantra.
Their successes, however, have been mixed. Ronald Reagan and George W Bush were able to push through their tax cutting packages while the going was good and Bill Clinton laid the groundwork for his landmark 1993 Budget Act setting the country on the path towards a balanced budget, though by just one vote in both houses.
But JFK dissipated initial goodwill with his disastrous Bay of Pigs venture into Cuba in April, just before 100 days expired. So did Mr Clinton by inviting controversy, first by telling the military not to discriminate against homosexuals, offending Colin Powell, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and next when two of his Cabinet nominees fell foul of “nannygate” controversies (hiring illegal aliens as household help).
The ensuing investigations into Whitewater, the land deal back in Arkansas, also did not help.
Comparable nomination distractions befell George H W Bush, when John Tower was voted down in the Senate as defense secretary, and Jimmy Carter with controversies surrounding the private financial dealings of Bert Lance, his first budget director. At least Mr Obama has dodged one of these bullets with Bill Richardson, under investigation in New Mexico, stepping down as prospective commerce secretary.
That was the only blot to date on the Obama transition, generally considered to have been a model for smoothness and efficiency, in contrast to Mr Clinton’s, where chaos sometimes seemed to reign, as it was to in his administration.
George W Bush’s was hampered by the fact that the Supreme Court only handed him the presidency five weeks after the election, cutting short preparation time and leaving senior levels of his government thinly staffed for months. By the summer, he appeared in some trouble but then came 9/11, changing everything.
The first 100 days are also all about politics. FDR had comfortable Democratic majorities in Congress, like Mr Obama today, but with its powerful barons, including some Republicans, it was no rubber-stamp legislature. However, FDR proved a master of persuasion and compromise, as the new president may need to be in tackling thorny issues such as healthcare reform.
That was the signal failure of the Clinton administration. The reform task force, under Hillary Clinton, operated in secrecy and eventually produced a bill so detailed it collapsed under its own weight when it finally reached Capitol Hill in the summer of 1994, long after 100 days had expired.
By contrast, the Agriculture Adjustment Act, as important and as complex in 1933 as healthcare reform is now, was on the statute books nine weeks after FDR’s inauguration.
And just as the clock has been running for the 80 days of the Obama transition, so it will start again today for another 100. Arbitrary it may be – “silly”, as the New York Times once called it – but it is a fact of life.
‘FDR; The First Hundred Days’. By Anthony F Badger. Hill & Wang. 200 pages; $23.00