[Update: Part 2 of this article series, which examines Bush, Clinton, and Bush has now been posted at my site.]
[Update 2: My "Obama's First 94 Days" article is now also available.]
It is "first 100 days" season in Washington. This is when lazy journalists (I include myself in that designation) write about an artificial timeline first instituted for Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. The roundness of the number, and the ease at fashioning a "hook" to your storyline prompts a flood of "100 days" stories for each and every president.
But before I get to writing mine (which will appear this Friday), I'd like to take a look back at Obama's closest predecessors and how the media saw their first 100 days in office. What is striking is how often the media gets it wrong when measuring up new presidents. What seems negative at the time can later be viewed positively by the consensus of history, and vice versa. So all journalists should approach the subject with some humility, and consider how often their snap judgments turn out later to be wrong.
Today's article will look at the first 100 days of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. Tomorrow's article (to be posted at ChrisWeigant.com) will look at George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. And then Friday I'll jump into the fray and write about Obama's first 100 days, which will likely prove later to be wrong in many ways, when read years from now.
Gerald Ford's first 100 days in office do not fall on the normal months of the calendar. This is because he was our only president to enter the office in such a fashion. Ford was named to the vice presidency after the resignation of Spiro Agnew, and then succeeded to the presidency when Richard Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. So Ford's first 100 days ran through the fall of 1974.
Ford's first 100 days are remembered for one sole action -- toasting his own English muffin in the White House kitchen. No, I'm kidding, that was just a photo op to convince America that Ford was not an "imperial" president (which was the image Nixon left office with). Ford will, of course, forever be remembered for pardoning the ex-president he replaced one month after taking office. What most people forget is that at the same time he started the process of also granting amnesty to Vietnam War draft dodgers (which Ford could have done, but was left for Jimmy Carter to actually finish).
Ford faced a daunting array of crises when he took over. Winding down the Vietnam War, an economic meltdown (inflation), and an energy crisis were all on his plate when he was sworn in. But any legislative accomplishments during Ford's first 100 days are buried in the mists of time when stacked up against pardoning Nixon. This is a fancy way of saying: "there's not a lot of data online from 1974 news sources, and I was too lazy to go to the bricks-and-mortar library and look it up." Ahem. But seriously, nothing else Ford did during the time period would mark his presidency (or "mar" his presidency, if you prefer) than Nixon's pardon.
At the time, it caused an outcry. Charges were made that there had been a "quid pro quo" deal worked out in advance between Nixon and Ford -- "pardon me, and I'll resign," in essence. The pardon itself may have doomed Ford's re-election chances, although the relative importance to his 1976 campaign is still debated among political scientists. But it was wildly unpopular when it happened, which is worth remembering as we grade another president on the 100-day scale. Ford, during his first 100 days, became the only sitting president in all American history to voluntarily appear before Congress and give sworn testimony, about the pardon. This shows the level of political outrage the pardon issue caused.
While interesting parallels can be drawn between Nixon and George W. Bush (compare and contrast the torture debate raging today with the prosecution debate over Nixon back then), the most interesting thing, as we look at President Obama's first 100 days, is that history later praised Ford for his pardon. The snap judgments of the day were later turned on their head, even if the pardon did lose Ford re-election. Historians now view the pardon as Ford outlined it at the time: a sincere effort to move beyond the Nixon years, and "heal" America. Ford's "our long national nightmare is over" quote sums up his view that looking forward was better than looking backward. Now where have I heard that line recently? Looking forward rather than looking backward... hmmm.
Jimmy Carter's election was as much as surprise as Bill Clinton's later turned out to be. A southern Democrat, who rode into town vowing to "change Washington," and who brought in his own people and disdained the way Congress had gotten used to operating.
Carter faced a daunting array of crises when he took over. The economy was in an inflation crisis, the Cold War was at its height, and a continuing energy crisis were all on his plate when he was sworn in.
His first 100 days are now seen as a disaster. He tried to do to much, and he tried to buck the system too much. Many dark warnings about Carter's first 100 days started circulating a month or two ago, when the talking point of the moment was: "Obama's trying to do too much."
There actually are a lot of parallels between Obama's style and Carter's style. The difference is that Obama has gotten some things done already, while Carter at this point just had a lot of proposals -- and a lot of folks annoyed at him. From a Newsweek article published on May 2, 1977 titled "Jimmy So Far":
Near the end of the First 100 Days, Hamilton Jordan listened impassively to the list of interests Jimmy Carter had succeeded in irritating thus far. Business, for his spending. Labor, for his thrift. Liberals, for his caution. Farmers, for his penny-wisdom about grain-price supports. The Democratic Party, for his Simon-purity about patronage. "Can you name one group that's for us?" Jordan asked. "You can't run this country with groups -- that's been part of the problem." A visitor proposed it might be equally risky for Carter to try running the country without them. "We'll see," said Jordan, unperturbed.
Carter is trying, out of a secure sense that he is at one with The People -- and that The People constitute a body larger than the sum of its parts. He has sought to please them by being precisely the sort of President he promised to be: activist in impulse, humane at heart, technocratic by training and frugal till it hurts as keeper of the public purse. He has mounted campaigns of the most gingerly design against inflation and unemployment. He has run a teachy, preachy, out-in-the-open foreign policy, to the affront of the Russians, the bewilderment of some allies -- and the apparent delight of workaday America. He has got his charter to reconstruct the government, and has begun blueprinting its use. And now he has declared his doomsday war to conserve energy -- a high-stakes gamble that could bear heavily on whether the Age of Jimmy is a footnote or a volume in U.S. history.
Carter has been to a surprising degree a foreign-policy President; he spends even more time at it than he needs to, one senior aide thinks, because he is new at it -- and because abroad, more than in Washington, "you can make things happen." He has been trying just that -- has dared the Soviets simultaneously on human rights and arms control, formulated a new Arab-Israeli peace plan out loud, moved toward normal relations with Hanoi and Havana and committed the U.S. heavily to curbing the spread of the bomb. He has run a more personal, more open and more rigorously moral foreign policy than any President in memory, with sometimes untidy results. His selective scoldings on human rights inflamed Idi Amin and antagonized several Latin American allies, and the State Department has been kept busy explaining ad libs by Carter early on and by his United Nations ambassador, Andrew Young, on the most sensitive world issues.
. . .
As the steward of the U.S. economy, Carter has turned out to be rather a conservative -- a surprise only to those who fixed on the populist strain in his campaign rhetoric and tuned out his homilies on wasteful Federal spending. His approach to the stubborn economic lag was moderate from the first -- a two-year, $30 billion package of stimuli -- and even then it took some hard selling by Mondale and economist-in-chief Charles Schultze to bringing him around to the notion of quickfix $50 rebates for practically everybody. His affection for the plan melted when the economy perked up on its own and when Senator Byrd passed along a private warning that he couldn't raise more than 40 votes for the rebate without an all-out White House push. The rebate abruptly died, largely unlamented outside liberal academe. "Why fight and bleed," asked Jordan, "for something you're not sure of anyway?"
. . .
Carter's amber-light policies have pleased (thought not entirely propitiated) corporate America and have distressed some of his own closest aides as a result. One in-house report on "White House Trouble Spots" complained about the rightward tilt of the President's Economic Policy Group -- a body so bankerly that one Jordan operative privately renamed it the Business Policy Group. Carter in fact has been getting conservative advice, with banker Lance and the Bendix Corp.'s Blumenthal safely settled in as one, two in the pecking order, and it is likely to get more conservative still with Carter's consent to monthly meetings with the Federal Reserve's tory chairman, Arthur Burns. Carter insists that his inflation-first strategy does not mean neglecting the unemployed. Still, his own projections show high-level joblessness continuing into 1980, and the AFL-CIO's Lane Kirkland dourly predicts: "There ain't gonna be no full employment here."
The anti-inflation imperative has in some measure banked the Administration's appetite for other sorts of innovation -- at least those sorts that cost money. Carter's people have long lists of initiatives to prove their concern for substance as well as style: the recovery package, a $1.5 billion youth-unemployment program, the critical first reorganization bill, sweeping electoral reform, an emergency natural-gas act and now the escalation of energy saving to nearly a wartime footing. A social-security message is expected before the 100 days are out, and an environmental package soon thereafter....
[Carter's] attack on the Federal bureaucracy will be a long, taxing struggle to remodel the government agency by agency, under the jealous watch of Congress and The Interests at every step. HEW's Joseph Califano is only just completing a set of options on welfare reform for submission to Congress this fall. Tax reform will also hit the Hill by autumn; national health insurance is further distant....
Carter and his Georgians retain their unspoiled belief in government by moral imperative -- the conviction that, if they are right, The People will perceive it and will sweep aside resistance by the Hill, the bureaucracy and the special interests. Their impatience to try has fed Carter's impulse to lay down arbitrary deadlines -- "People aren't secure enough to tell him they need another 30 days," one senior counselor says -- and to move on too many fronts at once. He resisted pleas for a month's delay of the energy package; it accordingly reached Congress log-jammed together with the inflation package, the proposed Department of Energy, and the great water-project purge. "We can't afford to have three or four things on the Hill at once," Jordan winced. "People start trading votes up there, and you increase the danger of losing something."
Jimmy Carter does not like losing anything. He has been in office barely long enough to impose his style on the Presidency and to demonstrate his command of its daily routine. He brings to it a mind and a discipline of tempered steel; an insatiable appetite for work and for fact; a dazzling and till now underappreciated mastery of the mass media; a refreshing habit of plain words and simple manners; the nerve and the will to lead "for a change" -- and an unassailable expectation of his own success. Out of his genius for intimacy with his public, he is no longer quite the stranger he seemed on his arrival in the White House last Jan. 20. Yet he and his Georgians remain outsiders there -- the vanguard of The People, by their own ordination, in the very citadel of The Interests. Carter has had his 100 days to settle into the Presidency, and has by popular judgment done handsomely at it. The 1,300 days still to come will test whether the White House is in fact his home.
Carter, one week into his presidency, wrote the following in his diary: "Everybody has warned me not to take on too many projects so early in the administration, but it's almost impossible for me to delay something that I see needs to be done." Carter, on his first day in office, granted amnesty to the draft dodgers, which Ford had left dangling. But then he picked a fight with Congress over a subject near and dear to John McCain's heart -- pork barrel spending. This led to Congress repeatedly refusing to follow Carter's lead, and his poor relations with Congress were an ongoing weakness for Carter throughout his presidency.
While Obama has not antagonized Congress in the same fashion, it is still striking to see Carter's style when compared to Obama's. The feeling that "the country's behind me" and "change" that Carter used are virtually the same as what Obama uses today. The difference is, to a large part, that Democrats in Congress are now mostly aligned with Obama in their desire to get things done, and therefore Obama has a lot more actual achievements to show for his first 100 days than Carter did. Carter had already had one major bill (a stimulus package) defeated by Congress at this point, while Obama has no comparable defeats yet.
But there's a lesson here as well. Carter was praised by the media for "a discipline of tempered steel," something few would say about him today. Cater "by popular judgment" at the time had "done handsomely" at his first 100 days. Few historians today would agree. Which only serves to point out how snap judgments, once again, don't always stand up to the test of time -- something every journalist contemplating a "100 days" article on Barack Obama would do well to remember.
Ronald Reagan won the presidency in a landslide in 1980. Reagan faced a daunting array of crises when he took over. The economy was in crisis (interest rates), Iran had taken Americans hostage, and the Cold War at its height were all on his plate when he was sworn in.
But the day he was sworn in as president, the Iranian hostages were released. The timing of this raised suspicions among some, but the general feeling in the American public was relief that a 444-day nightmare was finally over. But even this is not the event that is now remembered by everyone during Reagan's first 100 days, because on March 30, 1981 Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt (which he survived). Americans rally around our presidents in times of crisis, and an assassination attempt galvanized the country behind Reagan as a human being. More so than they already had been, since (as noted) he had just won an electoral landslide in the election.
Reagan was actually pretty slow-moving, at least legislatively speaking, during his first 100 days, perhaps from taking to heart the lessons of Carter's first 100 days. He used his time to set the broad outlines of his radically-different agenda, and to set a stylistic tone for his entire presidency.
From a monstrously-long article in the New York Times from April 26, 1981, titled "Reagan's First 100 Days":
On a mild winter morning nearly 100 days ago, Ronald Reagan took his oath of office as the American hostages in Iran took an Algerian jet to freedom. Mr. Reagan's smooth, insistent voice, summoning Americans to a "new beginning," has since had to compete with such intrusions as the crackling barrage of a would-be assassin's bullets, the disturbing staccato of terrorism in El Salvador, the rumble of Soviet troops maneuvering near Poland and the lesser static of quarreling among his Cabinet and staff. But none of these distractions has weakened the new President's resolve to propel the Government into the greatest change of direction in half a century.
With a gift for political theater, Mr. Reagan has established his goals faster, communicated a greater sense of economic urgency and come forward with more comprehensive proposals than any new President since the first 100 days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the hero of his youth and the man whose record of achieving social change Mr. Reagan seeks to emulate -- albeit at the opposite end of the political spectrum.
In Rooseveltian fashion, Mr. Reagan has commanded the attention of the public, the Congress and America's allies and adversaries. He has skillfully courted new and old friends, kept Democrats and liberals on the defensive and maintained a friendly posture even to those who, like labor leaders and blacks, regard his program as anathema.
And, perhaps by luck, he has managed to avoid the serious blunders of many predecessors. Before the end of their first 100 days, after all, John F. Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs, and Jimmy Carter had already alienated his Congressional allies and had been dramatically rebuffed by the Russians on his early arms-control initiative, setting negotiations back as much as a year for the ill-fated nuclear arms treaty.
. . .
Every modern President plagued by an economic crisis has defined it in terms of confidence, from Roosevelt's appeal -- "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" -- to Gerald Ford's WIN buttons [for: "Whip Inflation Now"] and Mr. Carter's 1979 speech about America's malaise. With Mr. Reagan comes a new resolve, contemptuous of a decade of talk about the need to accept limits on American growth, eager to embark on great new deeds worthy of his version of a simpler past. "And after all," he declared on Inauguration Day, "why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans."
But if Mr. Reagan's goals are awesome, so are the obstacles that impede him, and they have come into sharper focus as well in his first 100 days. The similarities between Roosevelt and Mr. Reagan are many, but one major difference is that Mr. Reagan has begun by outlining a program, not enacting one.
Before the end of Roosevelt's first 100 days, he had taken the nation off the gold standard, rescued the banking system and won passage of 15 major pieces of legislation, from Federal welfare programs to revisions in securities laws and enactment of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Mr. Reagan's achievements so far are contained 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. Not until March 31 did he sign his first bill -- cutting back dairy price supports -- on a breakfast tray at George Washington University Hospital the morning after he was shot. If the bulk of his program is enacted, it won't be until much later in the year, and it is far from certain what form it will be in by then.
. . .
The theory behind Mr. Reagan's [economic] proposals is untested, and he conceded as much in a speech to Congress. Turning to his critics, he asked: "Have they any alternative which offers a greater chance of balancing the budget, reducing and eliminating inflation, stimulating the creation of jobs and reducing the tax burden? And if they haven't, are they suggesting we can continue on the present course without coming to a day of reckoning in the very near future?"
At every chance, Mr. Reagan recognizes the need to rebuild expectations by sounding the theme of self-confidence, that "we are in control" and that "we can and will resolve the problems which confront us." But what he seeks most of all is a duplication of Roosevelt's political success altered to conservative needs -- a creation of the conditions leading to a new era of Republican primacy in America.
. . .
Roosevelt ran on a pledge to cut Government spending by 25 percent, and then showed himself to be a pragmatist and an improviser capable of abandoning campaign promises. "Take a method and try it," he said. "If it fails, try another. But above all, try something."
By contrast, Mr. Reagan may be pragmatic about his tactics, but he ran for office intent on implementing an agenda he had advocated for decades. To the astonishment of many, he is seeking now to carry it out.
. . .
Upon taking office, the memo went on, Mr. Reagan should gear his actions to his call for renewed confidence in America and for passage of his economic program. He was warned not to use "grand rhetoric" until his program was ready, and then to seek to lower expectations so that the public would understand that his goals could not be achieved quickly. "Finally, to provide real leadership, President Reagan must engage in a perennial campaign," the memorandum said, and then concluded: He should mount a daily barrage of speeches, directives and meetings to support his legislation, and he should forget any notion of being an "outsider" in the nation's capital. Mr. Carter had failed at that, alienating the power centers needed for a President to govern effectively.
In his very first days, Mr. Reagan therefore issued a blizzard of executive orders, lifting dozens of Government regulations, dismissing hundreds of Carter holdovers, setting a Federal hiring freeze and cutting back on travel, office redecoration, consultants and furniture procurement.
He met with everybody from the Congressional Black Caucus to the anti-abortionists. He spoke to the nation on television, addressed a joint session of Congress and let NBC film a day of his activities devoted to the economy for an hour-long special. Indeed, in two months, he met face to face with 400 Congressmen and ostentatiously courted the most powerful Democrat among them, Speaker of the House Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr., who was invited for dinner and to the President's surprise birthday party for intimates. When Mr. O'Neill sent a souvenir tie to the White House, Mr. Reagan showed up at their next meeting wearing it. "Now you're in the big leagues," the Speaker had warned the new President. But Mr. Reagan had already proved he knew it.
. . .
[While discussing tax cuts with his administration...] In 90 percent of the cases, the President gave a simple assent to what Mr. Stockman had wrought. Occasionally he sided with a Cabinet Secretary who objected, and sometimes he asked why a certain program couldn't be reduced even more. "Go ahead and cut it," he interjected at one point after a long debate. "They're going to hang me in effigy anyway, and it doesn't matter how high."
. . .
The question of mandate hovers over all of Mr. Reagan's doctrines. Americans, no doubt, endorsed his pledge to curb the intrusive role of Government. But did their votes for Mr. Reagan mean that they wanted him to take all these steps?
Did the election results mean that voters will embrace his efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act, or ease the regulation of wages, hours and conditions in the working place? Do most Americans want weaker controls over strip mining, offshore drilling, nuclear power plants and the labeling of food additives? Do they want the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to back away from regulating businesses? Do they want Government to de-emphasize energy conservation? Do they, indeed, want an end to Government social service programs as we know them?
Democrats who argue "no" have had problems opposing Mr. Reagan because, until recently, they failed to produce an alternative of their own. Moreover, they have been leaderless, rudderless and divided on the ideological lines that split the party even when Mr. Carter was President.
The assassination attempt on Mr. Reagan also appears to have helped the President's program, at least in the short run. "I sense an awful lot of sympathy and love for the President flowering around here now," said Senator Paul Laxalt, the Nevada Republican who is Mr. Reagan's closest Congressional ally. "But if I know the Congressional beast, it'll be short-lived."
. . .
Official Washington, at least, has been captivated by Mr. Reagan's affability. Having angrily labeled some Congressional budget figures as "phony," Mr. Reagan ducks his head later and allows with a grin that "it probably wasn't the proper word to use." Told by an aide that he'd be happy to hear that the Government had functioned normally during his stay in the hospital, Mr. Reagan replied: "What makes you think I'd be happy about that?" Mr. Reagan's quips deflect criticism, the most nettlesome of which is that the Administration remains riven by factionalism. "Sometimes our right hand doesn't know what our far right hand is doing," Mr. Reagan observed in response.
. . .
A major theme of Mr. Reagan's foreign policy is the notion of American moral superiority -- "a shining city on a hill" -- and its central element has been a return to the concept of containment of the Russians. This has meant, for example, that other recent Carter priorities -- curbing nuclear proliferation, advocating human rights and defusing regional disputes in the Middle East and Africa -- have taken second place to the renewed tendency to see problems in terms of East-West strategic considerations.
Surely the public supports a military buildup, and it may also approve of Mr. Reagan's insistence that the Soviet Union reserves "the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat" to advance its interests. Such language hasn't been heard from an American President in years.
But, privately, the President's political advisers say they know that while the American people favor a tougher stance toward the Russians, they simultaneously worry about any increased prospects for a nuclear confrontation. Thus, some aides concede that the Administration's bellicose talk was a significant factor in dampening Mr. Reagan's approval ratings just before the assassination attempt, and that it could become a factor again, hampering his ability to get his economic legislation passed. The President's aides are also concerned that the tough talk might raise unrealistic expectations for action. A Russian invasion of Poland, for example, would force the Administration to face the fact that it could do little to stop Moscow. Such a situation would be similar to Mr. Reagan's early promise of "swift retribution" for terrorism, followed by an embarrassed admission by aides that nothing would be done to punish the terrorists who jeopardized American lives in two recent airplane hijackings.
. . .
There have really been only three periods in this century, however, when American Presidents worked harmoniously with Congress to achieve far-reaching changes in Government: the first terms of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the first two years of Lyndon B. Johnson. But these were eras when Government was expanding, not contracting, as Mr. Reagan wants it to.
America has in more recent years become familiar with the conditions making it more difficult than ever for a President to bring about change. The factors include the atrophying of political parties, the fragmentation of Congress, the rise of Government bureaucracy and the problems posed by special interests, lawyers, American cynicism -- and the tendency of Presidential election campaigns to produce effective candidates, but not effective Presidents.
Facing these difficulties, Mr. Reagan has displayed remarkable political strengths and gifts. His first 100 days have shown that he is a President determined to change the tides of history. The question remains whether his popularity and his claim of a mandate have given him enough strength to do it.
Reagan used his first 100 days to set the tone for his administration. When measured by legislative successes and failures, his record looks awfully thin. But when taken with his success at moving his agenda later in his presidency, it looks awfully prudent. Reagan learned the lessons of Carter's first 100 days, and used his to lay the foundations with Congress and with the American people for his sweeping changes in the American government.
Reagan was also much more successful than Carter at actually keeping the public behind him. Carter's popularity was nowhere near as deep or as long-lived as Reagan's turned out to be (as evidenced by his overwhelming landslide win for re-election in 1984). Reagan did so mostly by communicating to the American people often, and by striking the right stylistic tone when doing so -- something which had eluded Carter.
Other than the hostage release and getting shot, though, Reagan's first 100 days aren't really all that memorable. The rest of his two terms in office were, however, and did wind up realigning American politics for a generation.
The lesson for all of us from Reagan's first 100 days can therefore be summed up as: the first 100 days is a pretty silly and arbitrary ruler to use to measure a president. Success in the first 100 days does not guarantee success for the next four (or eight) years. And vice versa.
Something all of us should keep in mind when grading our current president in the next week or so.
[Note for Monopoly fans: While it wasn't germane to this story, there was an amusing quote in the Carter article cited above. An unnamed senior Carter official, talking about progress with the Soviets on arms control talks, was quoted saying: "We have not gone back to 'Go,' but we are back maybe to Vermont Avenue." ]
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com