Tag Archives: 100 days

How to Deal With Premature Evaluation

Perhaps inevitably, and despite my warnings (hard to believe journalists don’t listen to me!), the media is poised to inundate us with an orgy of stories regarding Obama’s first 100 Days as President. As my colleague Amy Yuen pointed out to me, CNN (among many news outlets) is heavily promoting this event, promising that their coverage will equal their election night coverage (see the article in the NY Times Arts section here)!  In anticipation of the onslaught of like-minded news stories on April 29 (the 100th day of Obama’s presidency), and because of the comments from several of you defending the media’s focus on this rubric (see, for example, Olivier Knox’s thoughtful defense in the comments section here) I want to focus on two points underlying my original objection to the use of the 100 Days as a useful metric for assessing the Obama administration’s accomplishments to date.

First, my specific objection has to do with the primary focus on legislative or policy productivity, as of 100 days, as a yardstick of accomplishment. I am not against media efforts to evaluate specific presidential actions during the first 100 days, such as Ford’s controversial pardoning of Nixon.  Nor do I necessarily object to the media evaluating a president who explicitly tries to set an overall tone for their presidency, as when LBJ appealed to Congress (“Let us continue”) when he took office to honor the slain president by implementing JFK’s legislative agenda.  It is the media’s responsibility to take presidents at their word. But this is not what the 100 days yardstick has become.   Consider the following commentary by historian Julian Zelizer (see here):

“When presidents enter the White House, they have approximately 100 days to show what they are made of… . Barack Obama [and his advisers] will have to use their hundred days to build confidence in the government and its ability to stabilize the economic system, taking advantage of the narrow window they will have to get legislation through… .Obama will have to define himself in relation to his predecessor, but in this case by demonstrating clearly to the public what he will do differently, rather than the same, as President Bush. And, finally, the new president will need to find legislation that attracts some support from the opposition to diminish the power of polarization on Capitol Hill and establish the groundwork for future compromise…The one thing that Obama must realize is that those hundred days will disappear quickly. Once they are gone, as Bill Clinton learned after delaying his push for health care reform, the political capital is hard to get back.”

With all due respect to Zelizer, this is, in my view, fundamentally misguided advice, particularly the notion that presidents have a fixed amount of political capital that must be spent within 100 days, or forever lost.  (I will spend a separate post discussing the sources and utility of various forms of presidential “capital”.) But Zelizer’s  is precisely the perspective that animates (or will animate) much of the media coverage come April 29.  How well has Obama showed what he “is made of”?

In large part, media judgments will turn on a focused assessment of legislative and policy productivity.  As I’ve noted, this metric is derived from the celebrated period of FDR’s first three months in office, when he worked with a special emergency session of Congress to pass 15 major pieces of legislation. In reaction to my previous blogs on this topic, several of you have asked – why not use 100 Days? After all, if FDR could do it, why can’t Obama? Doesn’t the nation faces a similar economic crisis as it did in 1933? (I have argued, of course, that the two economic situations are not that similar).  Weren’t both FDR and Obama voted in with strong party support in Congress, after the previous party’s president’s policies were all but repudiated, with the expectation that they would change the direction of American politics?  And didn’t’ candidate Obama all but buy into the 100 days rubric, even going so far as to lay out an informal agenda in a campaign event in May, 2008, of what he hoped to accomplish as president in this time period (see here)?

These are all valid points.  In order not to repeat myself, let me focus here on two additional rejoinders to these questions that I haven’t talked about previously. To begin, let me note an often underappreciated fact regarding FDR’s 100 Days – the legislation passed during that period suffered from some of the same defects that I am warning about today: it was hastily constructed and didn’t always work. Most notably, Congress enacted and FDR signed the National Industrial Recovery Act into law. It essentially sought to bolster the nation’s economy by allowing businesses to form cartels and act in somewhat monopolistic fashion (by agreeing on prices and setting wages), under government supervision.  In the historical glow associated with FDR’s 100 days, we often forget that this particular piece of legislation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935 in the celebrated “sick chicken” case.  Nor did it prove particularly effective in alleviating economic conditions while in place. With hindsight, FDR might have been better off to step back to consider this legislation more carefully rather than pushing it through during his first 100 days.

More generally, I would argue that presidents – and the nation – are almost always better off moving more slowly in dealing with complex policy issues, such as health care reform, or climate policy, than they are in trying to leverage momentum from their election to pressure Congress to pass landmark legislation within this artificial window.  I understand all too well that first impressions matter and that presidents invariably feel pressure to leave their mark as policy activists in this period.  But history is littered with examples of presidents who moved too quickly, too soon, to their – and the nation’s – ultimate regret. I’ve previously noted Clinton’s missteps during his first 100 days, which laid the foundation for the Republican takeover in 1994. To that I might add Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, or Carter’s vetoing soon after taking office of several water projects near and dear to the hearts of Democratic leaders in Congress. But even those presidents who are often cited for the successful way they approached the 100 days do not always deserve these accolades. For example, Ronald Reagan used his 100 days – including public outpouring of support after the failed assassination attempt – to push through Congress a package of tax and spending cuts.  But during negotiations with Democrats to enact this legislation, Reagan was forced to make budgetary concessions that threw his deficit projections dangerously out of whack. When the bond markets reacted negatively to the budget projections, with the clear indications of deeper deficits, the nation’s economy slipped into a recession, and Reagan was forced to go back to Congress to raise revenue during the next legislative session.

My point is that legislative action for action’s sake – often under the duress imposed by the 100 Day yardstick – serves no one’s interest, not even the president’s, in the long run, particularly when dealing with complex policy areas. Why not take the time to do the job right?  And why not tell the media – and the public – exactly that?  Why not go on television and say, “These problems facing our nation are too complex, and too important, to be addressed in three months.  Instead, I am going to work with Congress to make sure we get this right.”  That, in my view, would demonstrate the true mettle of the man.

When I make this argument with journalists (and I have done it several times in the last few days!), the frequent response is: Well, if not 100 days, then when should we evaluate a president?  My answer is to cite the Constitution.  That document gives presidents four years in office before they are held accountable by the voters.  That seems a reasonable standard to me.  If the media can’t wait that long, then the first midterm election – although not really a referendum on the president so much as on the Congress’ ability to work with the president – serves as a reasonable first approximation.  That at least gives presidents and Congress a bit more breathing space to pass legislation, and to begin to sees its effects, positive or negative.  But 100 Days?  That’s a premature evaluation that serves no useful purpose.

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.