Time to get rid of the first 100 days benchmark
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In one of the sillier and more self-defeating rituals of the American presidency, ever since FDR new Presidents have been judged (and judged themselves) by what they accomplished in the “first 100 days.”

Since there are still more than 1,300 days to go in a presidential term, pardon me for asking, what does success or failure during the first 100 days prove?

The signature legislative accomplishments, for example, of President Obama and President George W. Bush — the Affordable Care Act and No Child Left Behind, respectively — took place well after their first 100 days. 

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FDR’s first 100 days is a terribly unfair benchmark to apply to his successors. On the day of FDR’s inauguration in 1933, the United States of America was collapsing. Every state had shut its banks or severely restricted their operation; there was not enough money in the Treasury to meet the federal payroll; and the New York Stock Exchange had shut down with no date set to reopen.

 

Since the 1929 stock market crash, stock prices had plummeted 85 percent and manufacturing in the United States had all but ceased: the automobile industry was operating at 20 percent of normal capacity and the steel industry at only 12 percent.

The year before, 273,000 families had been evicted from their homes (one-fourth of the state of Mississippi had been auctioned off, according to some estimates).

A writer touring Chicago witnessed a hundred starving people clambering through a garbage dump, “falling on the heap of refuse as soon as the [garbage] truck had pulled out and digging in it with sticks and hands.” Nationally, a third of a million children were no longer being educated because their schools had closed for lack of funds.

Two million Americans were wandering the nation’s roads, one quarter of them between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one. And, among the more than 15 million persons looking for jobs that were nowhere to be found, were nearly 22,000 graduates of Ivy League universities.

Facing the gravest crisis since the Civil War, FDR demanded in his Inaugural speech that, if necessary, Congress grant him “broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”

People were so terrified that few questioned the implications of one branch of government ceding its powers to another. But that is essentially what happened when, in his first 100 days, FDR passed 15 major, transformative laws. It was said that Congressmen did not so much debate the bills “as salute them as they went sailing by” (it didn’t hurt that FDR had large Democratic majorities in both chambers).

Even though the circumstances of FDR’s first 100 days were one-of-a-kind, the first 100 days has been presidential catnip ever since. Presidents hurl themselves at the FDR standard with all the self-delusion of big league hitters who dream of breaking Joe DiMaggio’s legendary 56 consecutive game hitting streak in 1941.

"Jerk out every damn little bill you can," President Lyndon Johnson reportedly told an aide in 1965. "Put out that propaganda ... that [we've] done more than they did in Roosevelt's hundred days."

President Trump veers between falsifying his achievements -- “no administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days”-- and calling the 100 days a “ridiculous standard” (characteristically, Trump made both statements in the same week but, as they say, live by the sword, die by the sword). Recently, President Trump announced, to the consternation of his aides, that he would make a “big” announcement on tax overhaul just two days shy of the 100 day benchmark on April 29, which could mean a poorly thought out tax plan. Didn’t they learn anything from the Obamacare debacle?

We would all be a lot better off without the 100 day presidential report card. In three-quarters of a century, no one has come close to breaking DiMaggio’s record (Pete Rose at 44 came the closest but he was still weeks of consecutive hits away).  In more than 80 years, no President’s first 100 days came close to FDR’s.  Some records will never be broken, so by all means pummel Trump’s 100 day record, which is more Mad Max: Fury Road than New Deal, but let’s make this the last time we use the 100 day standard.

Gregory J. Wallance is a writer, lawyer, former federal prosecutor, and the author most recently of “America's Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR's State Department and the Moral Disgrace of an American Aristocracy.” Follow him on Twitter @gregorywallance.


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