Do You Know What Today Is?

It’s the 84th day of the Obama administration. And do you know what’s significant about this, the 84th day, of the Obama administration? Nothing. That’s right. The 84th day of any administration has no intrinsic significance. Accordingly, no rational person would use the 84th day of an administration as a yardstick by which to assess that administration’s progress. It’s a bit like assessing the manager of a baseball team two games into the season. It’s like evaluating a marriage during the honeymoon. It’s like assessing my presidency course after one class (ok, that’s different – you pretty well know you are doomed after the first class).

And yet the punditocracy will have us believe that the 100th day of Obama’s administration, which is only two weeks away, serves as a meaningful marker for assessing his presidency to date. Consider the following comment in today’s Boston Globe story covering Obama’s Georgetown economic speech (see article here): “The speech came as Obama nears his symbolic 100-day mark in office, important because that has become a traditional marker by which to judge new administrations.”

Really? “A traditional marker”? Says who? Well, the NY Times says so, since they are running a semi-regular featured titled “100 Days Starting the Job from FDR to Obama”. CNN agrees; at their website, they run an ongoing column measuring progress during Obama’s first 100 days (see here). Indeed, more often than not, you will see most major media outlets discussing the 100 days as if it was a significant milestone in any presidency.

The origins of the 100 days yardstick, as I’ve discussed before, date back to FDR’s first term, when he took office in March, 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, however, no president since has come to power under remotely similar circumstances, and so expectations that they will accomplish what FDR and the Democratically-controlled Congress did at that time are historically misleading. Consider how much has changed since 1933. To begin, FDR’s term began several months before that of the newly-elected Congress, which wasn’t normally seated until December, almost 9 months after the president took office. Roosevelt, however, called the new Congress into a special emergency session, where they proceeded to spend the next three months passing a series of legislation that has gone down in history as FDR’s First New Deal. Interestingly, the impetus for calling the special session was the need to pass special banking legislation to avoid a full collapse of the banking industry. Once Congress convened on March 9th and passed the banking emergency act, however, FDR was persuaded to keep the Congress in session, and between March 8th and June 16th together they drafted and passed fifteen major legislative proposals into law. This included the Agricultural Adjustment Act that placed a floor under farm prices and provided farm subsidies, the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance system, the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority to develop hydroelectric power and help farmers in the Tennessee Valley. Some acts, such as the National Industrial Recovery act that essentially allowed businesses to act in monopolistic fashion to raise prices and set wages, under government supervision, were later declared unconstitutional.

Some of the legislation has particular relevance today. More than 40% of the nation’s 4 million homeowners faced foreclosure when FDR took office. To prevent a housing meltdown, FDR and Congress created the Homeowners Loan Corporation. It was charged with making loans, and refinancing existing mortgages, often by replacing risky mortgages with longer, fixed rate ones to reduce the foreclosure threat. This led to the establishment of the Federal Home Administration (FHA) and the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA) which helped provided a secondary market for mortgages and led to a vast increase in home ownership in this country. Finally, the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and the PWA (Public Works Administration) were established to create government-back employment opportunities

But it would be a mistake to view this as a “legislative program” developed through careful design (despite FDR’s fireside chat arguing the contrary – see here). Instead, Roosevelt and his “brains trust” largely played without a playbook, tackling problems one by one as they needed to be addressed, but without an overarching philosophy beyond the willingness to try anything. Often FDR pursued policies – as in cutting the veteran’s benefits from the federal budget while at the same time increasing expenditures on emergency spending programs – that can only be viewed as contradictory. In the end, if the First New Deal did not succeed in ending the economic depression, it did at least appear to right the foundering ship of state. More importantly, as I’ve argued elsewhere, he forever changed the public’s expectations regarding the government’s role in maintaining economic growth and a social safety net.

Here’s a timeline of FDR’s 100 Days, using documents at the Presidency Research Project (see here).

March 4th 1933 FDR Inauguration

March 6th Bank Holiday

March 9th Emergency Session of Congress. Passage of Emergency Banking Act.

March 10th Economy Act sent to Congress

March 12th First Fireside Chat

March 13th Banks begin to reopen

March 16th Farm Bill sent to congress to remedy lack of purchasing power of farmers.

March 20th Economy Act Passed into law cutting Veteran’s benefits (a huge chunk of the federal budget at the time) by 50%. Although FDR’s budget director was pleased with this, Roosevelt later began moving away from balanced budgets as a way to combat the Depression.

March 21st Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) bill sent to Congress.

March 22nd Beer-wine revenue bill sent to Congress.

March 27th Farm Credit Administration created by Executive Order. (This essentially merged 9 separate agencies.) Farm Mortgage Relief Act proposed.

March 31st CCC passed into law. Initially designed to create 250,000 jobs among unemployed young adults. Created more than 2 million by the end of the program in 1942. CCC workers worked in largely rural areas, clearing deadwood, establishing trails and shelters, working on flood control and fire suppression and stocking fisheries.

April 5th Farm Mortgage Relief passed into law.

April 7th Beer sales were legal for the first time since Prohibition began in 1920. Tax revenues began flowing into government.

April 10th Congress sent legislative proposal for Tennessee Valley Authority.

April 19th In reaction to the slumping value of the dollar, FDR takes the US dollar off the gold standard.

May 7th Second Fireside Chat. Reviews progress after 60 days.

May 12th To combat unemployment the Federal Emergency Relief Act creates FERA, with $500 million, ½ directed to the states, ½ available as matching funds for state programs. This later became the Works Progress Administration.

Agricultural Adjustment Act and Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, to reduce $200 million worth of surplus production (accomplished by ploughing crops under, set acreage aside to lie fallow, and livestock reductions).

May 18th Passage of TVA: 650 mile navigable water way to be built from Knoxville TN to Paducah KY, with construction of dams, power plants, fertilizer production, intended for direct economic benefit on 7 state area affected.  Often hailed as a model of a new public/private partnership.

May 27th Federal Securities Act passed, established the Securities and Exchange Commission, headed by Joseph Kennedy, father of future president John Kennedy.

June 5th Senate and House by Joint Resolution abrogate the gold clause in private and public contracts, and back paper currency as legal tender.

June 13th Homeowners’ Loan Corporation enacted, empowered to refinance mortgages, make loans, and advance cash for tax payments and repairs.

June 16th Several key pieces of legislation passed, including:

-The Banking Act of 1933, aka “Glass-Steagall” Act passed into law. This legislation created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and protected bank deposits up to $5,000, separated commercial from investment banking, forced banks to get out of the business of financial investment, banned the use of bank deposits in speculation. It was the repeal of portions of this act during Clinton’s presidency that some believe contributed to the current economic crisis.

-The National Industrial Recovery Act, including Title 2 creating the Public Works Administration. The NIRA had three parts. Title I suspended the provisions of anti-trust legislation on price fixing, and a enacted a tremendous boost to industrial trade unions by promoting collective bargaining. Title II allocated $3.3 billion for public works, to build and repair federal buildings, roads, bridges, and dams. Title III consisted of a list of Congressionally-initiated projects.

-The Farm Credit Act. Legislation which concluded the process begun when FDR issued an executive order establishing the Farm Credit Administration. This provided easier refinancing of farm mortgages, and brought foreclosures to a halt.

When this special session of Congress ended, someone compared the period of legislative productivity to Napoleon’s celebrated 100 days after he left exile in Elba and briefly regained power in France in 1814. And so FDR’s “100 Days” were immortalized, with the unfortunate result that every successive president’s first 100 days is inevitably compared to FDR’s. But what president since Roosevelt has taken office with unemployment at 25%, with the banking system on the brink of collapse, with deflation threatening farmers’ livelihood, the nation’s housing system near a total meltdown? – well, you get the picture. There existed a real possibility that the nation’s economic – and by extension the political – system was on the verge of collapse. Even the most dire descriptions of the current economic crisis pale in comparison.

We can see (I hope) that measuring Obama’s progress using the 100 days yardstick is an utterly asinine exercise, and worse – it is counterproductive because it creates unrealistic expectations for what presidents can reasonably hope to accomplish three months into their presidency. More often than not, presidents set themselves up for failure by promising – as Clinton did with health care reform in 1993 – to pass major legislation within 100 days of taking office. When they inevitably fail to succeed in meeting the artificial timetable, they are taken to task by the media (never mind that the yardstick is wholly a media creation!). And yet in two weeks, we will be inundated with “100 days” stories comparing progress (or lack thereof) during the Obama administration with progress during previous presidencies. And the Obama White House, while ostensibly downplaying any significance to the day, will nonetheless dutifully roll out talking points demonstrating just how much has been accomplished on his watch so far.

Well, such foolishness may suffice for the Times or CNN, but I’m warning you now – come the 100th day there will be none of this nonsense on this blog. You deserve better. And you’ll get it here. I expect to devote that entire day to a discussion of Mark (‘The Bird”) Fidrych’s short but spectacular baseball career. Let me begin by noting that he graduated from my high school.

Now that’s something to celebrate.


  1. Matt–
    Would it be accurate to say the 100 days distinction is more significant for a historian than a political scientist?

    Because it is an interesting yard stick in retrospect to compare action at the very beginning of an administration.; but I agree, in real time, it’s awfully arbitrary.

  2. Yes, I can see that you think the 100 Days don’t warrant much of a discussion. That point has been forcefully made here in this blog po—-oh, wait.

    Come on, professor: 100 days is as good as any to write up the “so, how’s he doing so far?” story. Most media outlets will call it a “symbolic” point. Most readers will understand what that means. I certainly hope it’s not beyond the grasp of Midd students.

    Taking stock of policies and people often happens at artificial points. The 2,500th casualty in Iraq (not the 2,499th). Five trillion dollars (not five trillion and one) of national debt. House passage of important legislation that hasn’t cleared the Senate yet. That sort of thing. Now, if someone in my line of work calls it a “crucial benchmark that decides the fate of a presidency” or something equally overwrought, you can fire up the scorn’o’meter.

    Then there’s this:

    “When they inevitably fail to succeed in meeting the artificial timetable, they are taken to task by the media (never mind that the yardstick is wholly a media creation!).”

    Yes, evil evil silly evil silly mejjuh! They (and historians) borrowed a term from Napoleonic history!!! Didja know that the First 100 Days ACTUALLY LASTED 105 DAYS??? See what fools those reporters are???

    Oh, brother.

    As much as I enjoy the phrase “fail to succeed in meeting” I have to tell you that I’m not sure what you mean. A handful of presidents — you mentioned Clinton — embrace the 100 days for their own purposes. But are you really looking at the Obama presidency and seeing a failure to pass major legislation (whatever you may think of said legislation?)? That’s how I read the word “inevitably.” And that’s wrong.

    Or do you mean that presidents don’t equal the standard of achievement set by FDR and that long-ago Congress? Maybe, but I don’t think anyone, even in Teh Mejjuh, would tell you that a president is a failure for not doing as much.

    But that doesn’t make “how’s he doing so far?” a ridiculous, pointless exercise.

  3. Alex and Olivier – I am not against developing yardsticks to measure progress, whether it is done by the media, political scientists or historians. But the yardstick must be meaningful in the context in which it is applied. If, for example, the media wished to evaluate (and compare) Obama’s legislative progress, say, at the end of the first congressional session, that would be a logical and historically useful barometer. But the use of the 100 days marker is simply not meaningful today in any realistic sense because the measure was created under an entirely different context. It has no relevance to the presidency today (indeed, to any of the post-FDR presidents). So why even bother pretending it’s only “an interesting yardstick”, when the “interest” only exists because of the FDR precedent? We wouldn’t be assessing Obama at 100 days if FDR’s 100 days hadn’t occurred, and to pretend otherwise is absurd. To use Olivier’s analogy, why don’t we compare progress in the Iraq war to progress in the Civil War, using the 2,500 casualty in both wars as our comparison point? How’d Bush stack up to Lincoln as a war leader using that measure? It is immediately obvious that such a comparison is less than useful. And yet we persist (and when I saw “we” I mean the media!) in pretending that 100 days serves some useful purpose. If the media was only using 100 days as a convenient benchmark, as Olivier persists in claiming, I might look the other way. But there is a historical standard of comparison behind this benchmark – it wasn’t simply plucked out of thin air by the NY Times or CNN because it’s a nice round number. It’s the connotation behind the number that gives it relevance. When it comes to measuring “success” at this point, FDR casts a long shadow on every one of his presidential successors. You don’t think Clinton’s decision to promise a health care bill in 100 days wasn’t a conscious (and misguided) effort to capitalize on the media’s fascination with the FDR precedent?

    Olivier – I challenge you to be the first journalist to write an article titled: “Why 100 days is a ridiculous time to evaluate the Obama presidency.” If you do so, I’ll substitute your story for my planned coverage of my boyhood hero, baseball player Mark Fidrych. Dare to be different!

  4. “We wouldn’t be assessing Obama at 100 days if FDR’s 100 days hadn’t occurred, and to pretend otherwise is absurd.”

    Who’s “pretending” that the 100 Days yardstick didn’t originate with the FDR presidency? I mean, I guess I might be, in a way, since I brought up the fact that the 100 days coinage appears to have been a conscious look back at Napoleon’s (ill-fated) 100 Days, but I don’t think that’s what you mean.

    Will there be a lot of FDR/Obama comparisons in the media? I’d bet on it. How did they respond to the economic crisis of their time, etc. Will the media take Obama to task, as you claim above, if it decides Obama has not accomplished as much as FDR did? That’s hard to measure: You conflate “the punditocracy” with news reporters, which is useful for sweeping denunciations but not so useful for actual media analysis. I don’t think that straight news reporters will declare that Obama is a failure for not getting as much through Congress as FDR did. I really don’t. Will they note that he didn’t get as much through Congress? Probably.

    In general, though, I don’t think that 100 days coverage historically has been about measuring against the FDR yardstick in the sense of “well, FDR managed to get 16 major pieces of legislation through, so Clinton/Bush/Obama is terrible.” I do recall a lot of “what’s happened in the last 100 days?”

    But even where there are comparisons, I also don’t think there’s anything particularly dishonest or historically illiterate about the 100 days standard. It’s not like reporters pretend that there aren’t differences in historical circumstances. You’re not going to see a lot of “Well, Bob, Obama really has just failed to use the radio as well as FDR did.” If you’re saying that FDR faced unique circumstances, well, geez, sure. So did each one of his successors.

    Let me restate: The 100 Days is a media conceit — a smart observer might view it was essentially a marketing gimmick, like the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau. As I called it in 2001, it’s “an artificial but traditional milestone for nascent administrations.”

    “You don’t think Clinton’s decision to promise a health care bill in 100 days wasn’t a conscious (and misguided) effort to capitalize on the media’s fascination with the FDR precedent?”

    Sure. But we’re not arguing about whether the 100 days came from the FDR administration.

    And in that particular instance, what was misguided wasn’t the FDR reference, it was promising a particular achievement by a particular date and failing to deliver. The coverage wasn’t “Clinton sure didn’t measure up to FDR” it was “Clinton failed to achieve what he said he would achieve,” a distinction that lies at the core of my argument about the 100 days. (You know, Obama laid out, in detail, what he hoped to do in his first 100 days. He did it at a fundraiser in May 2008. I think that will weigh on the scales.)

    Your challenge is eight years too late. On April 27, 2001, we ran this:

    Headline: “100 days historically significant to media, not presidency.” Nearly 500 words (about average for a bylined story on our wire). Some sample points: “fairly meaningless” yardstick. “no real significance” to using the number. “Arbitrarily” using standard set by media under FDR.

  5. Olivier,

    Good comments. You are right to take me to task for conflating the “punditocracy” with the media, and I stand corrected. Unfortunately, it won’t be the last time I lump them together (it’s so convenient!), so let this serve as a preemptive blanket apology. Nor do I take issue with your claim that few if any journalists will blame Obama for failing to persuade Congress to produce the legislative equivalent of FDR’s First New Deal.

    But methinks you are being far too modest about media influence and what’s going on here: the fact that Clinton promised to present a health care reform bill in 100 days, or that Obama “laid out, in detail, what he hoped to do in his first 100 days” at a campaign fundraiser, is because the media persists in using 100 days as some sort of measuring rod for legislative accomplishments. If this was all a parlor game, I wouldn’t care. But it’s not. And, wisely or not (and you know where I stand), presidents – while often publicly poo-pooing the 100 day deadline – nonetheless take the public relations aspect of it very seriously in ways that distort the policy making process, and not for the better. Why else do they persist in using the 100 day yardstick? If Clinton had claimed, I promise to produce health care legislation within a year, he would have met his deadline. And now we are bracing for the onslaught of “Obama promised such and such by 100 days but only achieved this much” stories. My point is that presidents feel constrained to acknowledge, and even fulfill, these 100-day deadlines, and against their better judgment, because the media persists in writing about it.

    Eight years is a lifetime in terms of the public consciousness – here’s your chance to reprise that article, and perform a useful public service to boot!

    (Speaking of public services, as you aren’t shy about pointing out, I don’t have the luxury of a copy editor. If you are willing to take up the task on the side, I can give you a free t-shirt!)

  6. I cannot take on the task of copy editor. It is a job I did from four pm to midnight from Wednesday to Sunday when I was starting out. Let that be a warning to students of yours who entertain grand plans of becoming reporters/journalists or even, gag, pundits.

    I don’t think we’re disagreeing about the artificiality of the 100 Days conceit. And presidents refuse to play along at their peril — President Bush’s Administration spent weeks in their unsuccessful effort to kill off the concept, and finally relented. They even went so far as to give him a “report card.”

    You’re completely right that presidents face media constraints, not all of which are particularly logical, or helpful. And the 100 Days certainly is one.

    But as I wrote at the outset, the 100 Days doesn’t seem to me to be that horrible. I’m sure you address the importance in politics of setting and meeting (or beating) expectations, and I think that the most important way in which presidents respond to the 100 Days is by setting their own expectations.

    Mind you, the heart of a presidential campaign is a bad place to discuss 100 Days expectations in anything like a realistic setting.

    As for the reprise, it’s sort of an evergreen piece for us. We write it every time.

  7. The more I think about it, though, the more I think you have volunteered to denounce the 100 Days in our story (last time we had Stephen Hess, Thomas Mann, a couple of poli sci types from Florida and Ohio).

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