The next first 100 days

It’s barely 100 days into 2008, but now is a good time to start thinking about the first 100 days of the next presidency. While the president-elect will have to take a fresh look at policy, the Beltway’s array of special interests will have to take a fresh look at a new face — and therefore, both sides ought to let history provide some guidance in creating a working relationship.

It goes without saying that successful campaigning and successful governing are not mutually exclusive. The next president may well experience a Robert Redford moment: like when, at the end of his surprise victory in “The Candidate,” he asks in the movie’s closing scene, “What now?”  

Candidates should start thinking about the “what now,” particularly as the next president heads to the White House with the support of the voters and some message of “change” but faces a Beltway mentality where cynicism and gridlock have reigned for decades.

“What now” will be acting quickly to capture the honeymoon period and jump-starting a legacy. Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated the concept of the vital “first 100 days” when he swept into office and immediately tackled the onslaught of the Great Depression.

Similarly, John F. Kennedy sent Congress a flurry of broad proposals to promote rapid economic growth, reform taxes, provide opportunities for the less fortunate and ensure civil rights for all Americans.

When Ronald Reagan entered office, the country’s economic pot was boiling over with double-digit inflation, high interest rates and a decaying tax system. He successfully enacted a sweeping economic and tax package in his first months.

Americans have come to expect a slate of vigorous policy proposals to tackle major economic and domestic issues at the birth of each presidency. Candidates seeking to follow in the footsteps of presidents who have seen successful first 100 days should consider some “do’s” and “don’ts”:

• A successful president must use the campaign to acquire the necessary mandate for change. This mandate must be based on a vision and broad principles that are as well-articulated as they were under FDR, JFK and Reagan. All three were successful because they had all of the right ingredients — a climate ripe for change, normally balkanized interest groups speaking in unison for the good of the country, and a credible message that played in the heartland, on Capitol Hill and on K Street.

• Candidates can’t get too tangled in details, where the real devil lies.

• Don’t let winning preclude governing. The mandate cannot be built upon cheap political points that will become a setup for reneging later, much like former President George H.W. Bush’s “Read my lips” pledge on taxes, or the colorful former Louisiana Gov. Earl Long (D), who, when called on to keep a campaign promise for a new bridge, stated: “Tell ’em I lied.”

• Each of the candidates should pause for a long moment to figure out whether to bring legitimate K Street special interests into the big tent or to go over their heads to the American people. The former strategy, while more difficult, can present long-run benefits for the new president’s full term. After all, a president who can harness the reality and the strength of the American polity, diverse interests and constantly shifting alliances will be a president who goes into the history books as a success.

• Start now. For example, our organization has already met with the economic advisers of all the top presidential candidates. Ideas need to be formulated, scrutinized, debated and ultimately packaged for sale — long before their 100 days begin.

Likewise, for K Street, it will be important for Beltway insiders to start planning and finding common ground with one another for how to deal with the likely domestic policy positions of the next president. The challenges we face are not lessening. While Iraq and national security remain on everyone’s mind, the economic challenges facing us now have risen to the forefront.

The economy is showing cracks as the anticipation of a recession becomes a reality for Wall Street and Main Street. Most economists would agree that tax increases in an economic downturn are not a recipe they would recommend. How will the next president attend to the Bush-era tax cuts, which are set to expire in 2010? The Alternative Minimum Tax is a looming crisis for the middle class. Will the next administration be bold enough to finally overhaul a tax system designed during the age of buggywhips, chambermaids and printing presses, but which operates during the age of BlackBerrys, outsourcing and video file-sharing?

Our retirement system, both its private and public components, is at risk as millions of baby boomers approach age 65. The problems with our healthcare system call out for sober analysis and a unified voice. Will the next president have truly effective (and politically viable) healthcare plans ready to go in the first 100 days?

The answer to that question, like so many others, will be answered in a year. But the test, and preparation, begin now.

Mark Bloomfield is president and CEO of the American Council for Capital Formation , a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to public policies supportive of saving and investment to promote long-term economic growth, job creation and competitiveness. Bloomfield also served as secretary of a President-Elect’s Task Force on Tax Policy.