Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at the first 100 days of a Presidency. Read his previous OUPblogs here.
What can the first 100 days tell us about a president’s remaining days in office? Not much about the president, but a little about the expectations we have of him.
President Bush tried and achieved little of significance in his first 100 days in office. His major accomplishment in his first year, signing into law a $1.35 trillion tax cut, would occur only in his fifth month in office. No one foresaw September 11, and Bush’s aggressive expansion of the National Security State as a result.
Or consider the president who preceded him. Bill Clinton tried to do a lot in his first 100 days – too many, say conventional accounts – and consequently also achieved little of significance in his first 100 days. Clinton did end up doing quite a lot in his 8 years in office, but not because he overloaded his agenda but because he learned, after his first two years in office, to work with congress. 100 days predicted little in both these cases.
Or how about President John Kennedy, who presided over probably the biggest fumble ever in the first 100 days of any administration – the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Kennedy was able to recover from the debacle though, unlike Jimmy Carter who seemed to suffer one mishap after another even though the first he suffered during his first hundred days was quite innocuous. Carter had tried to create one of FDR’s famous fireside chats, complete with blazing fire in the background in order to communicate his energy policy to the country. Carter wore a cardigan sweater rather than a suit, for which he later earned the epithet, “Jimmy Cardigan.” The fact was the speech had gone down quite well at the time. The Boston Globe found it a “powerful presidential event, moving in its simplicity and significant in its reiteration of his goals.” It came across, to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, like “a cup-of-coffee conversation at the corner drugstore, instead of a discussion at the club.”
Carter’s first 100 days was retrospectively slammed because he failed to make good on the promises he made; while Kennedy’s early gaffe has been quickly forgotten because history never offered him a chance to deliver on his promises – suspended as he is in political martyrdom. In neither case was the first hundred days either a predictor or a path-dependent lock on what these presidents who do later on in office.
So our fascination with the first 100 days of a presidency is a statement not about our ability to assess presidencies, but a mirror unto our expectations of them. The fact is few presidents are judged by what they achieved in their first 100 days in office. Only those on whom are laid great expectations become the object of great scrutiny. Few, if anybody, asked what President George W. Bush achieved in his first 100 days. A report card this early in a presidency is only required when the American people give a mandate to their president for swift and decisive action. And George W Bush had no mandate, having won less than half of the nation’s popular vote. While most presidents spent the two months before Inauguration preparing their transition teams, George Bush spent much of this time contesting Al Gore’s claim to the presidency.
Our fascination with scoring the achievements and failures of President Obama’s first 100 days is a reflection of the expectations we have of him. The scorecard says more about the scorer than anything specific about the future of the Obama presidency. All we can observe is that with great expectations come opportunities for great success or failure. Very few people expect Barack Obama to be a middling president, and that’s all we know right now.