Political Hay

The Reality of Myth

A hundred days is all a president gets -- if he's lucky.

By 9.22.09

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The mystique of a President's first 100 days may not be a myth after all. The current and former Administrations have both followed a similar trend: the new president's window for pursuing domestic policy is small and closes rapidly. Both presidents saw rapid approval of their first domestic initiative, only to find the slope suddenly steep. 

While setting FDR's first 100 days as a presidential benchmark has always been patently unrealistic, there is also a core of reality: even at swearing in, the legislative clock is already running. 

George W. Bush passed his tax cut within his first months in office, but further major domestic legislative success came only after 9/11. President Obama was able to easily pass his stimulus bill shortly after entering office, but now finds the Hill much higher for his domestic priorities. 

Both presidents were comparatively fortunate. Many -- Bush I, Carter, and Ford, for example -- did not have even this initial success. Little wonder that the exceptions -- Reagan, and especially Roosevelt -- stand starkly out.

In comparison to recent experience, FDR's first 100 days is all the more dramatic. Sworn in on March 4, 1933 he stated: "I'm prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken Nation in the midst of a stricken world may require…I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption."

Speedy does not begin to describe it. Two days later, he closed the nation's banks with a "bank holiday." A special session of Congress met on March 9, and he had his first "fireside chat" with the nation on March 12. During its special session, Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act, National Industrial Recovery Act, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Home Owners Loan Corporation, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps. 

In the wake of this unprecedented peacetime action, he stated: "I am certain that this Special Session of Congress will go down in the history of our country as one which, more than any other, boldly seized the opportunity to right great wrongs…to carry through its business with great celerity…"

Admittedly, FDR faced an unprecedented economic crisis and worked with enormous political resources. Unemployment would shortly reach a quarter of the workforce and the economy had shrunk for four consecutive years (today's unemployment is 9.7% and the economy has shrunk for four consecutive quarters). In Congress, Democrats held 313 House seats and 59 of 96 Senate seats. However FDR needed all of this in order to overcome the inherent obstacles to precipitous action.

The Constitution purposely makes quick action difficult. It also gives the President and Congress very different roles and interests. The President has a national constituency, Congress, 535 local ones. The President has at most two terms, Congress is re-made by election every two years. The President's eight years in office are slightly more than a Senator's single term and just four terms for a House member -- neither gives these members of Congress time to accrue the seniority needed to achieve power. While celerity is key for the President, longevity is for Congress.

But current technology has made this already difficult dynamic even more disadvantageous for a President. It has changed the policy process by changing the electorate and the media. Information outlets are now instantaneous and virtually unlimited. This information pressure has made the mainstream media that much more voracious if it is to remain competitive. 

Footage of President Obama was likely seen by a higher proportion of the electorate during his first day in office than was seen of FDR in his first term. It is unimaginable now to recall that virtually none of the electorate ever saw FDR in the wheelchair to which he was confined throughout his presidency.

This level of exposure rapidly diminishes the president's level of novelty. At the same time, his proposals are disseminated and dissected to an incomparable degree within the electorate. There is no longer an ability to work in isolation, an ingredient invaluable in forging the delicate compromises needed for legislative success.

Our constitutional system designed the legislative process to be difficult and slow and for the protagonists to have different roles and interests. But the coverage of this process has greatly accentuated these differences -- increasing the difficulty and diminishing the time in which to navigate it.

The presidency has always been a synergy of symbol and substance. The only nationally elected office in the country, the presidency has a unparalleled political status that offers a unique credibility. This synergy is short-lived, however, even under the best of circumstances. Under current circumstances, the office's symbolic and substantive attributes are less and less within an Administration's control. And as a result, so too is a legislative agenda.

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.