100 days is a ridiculous way to judge a presidency

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In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt took office during an unprecedented economic crisis. Nearly 25 percent of Americans were unemployed, banks were failing, crop prices were falling — and these conditions had accelerated for years, leading to widespread hunger. In his first 100 days in office, FDR worked with Congress to pass fifteen critical bills that created relief measures like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Public Works Administration, and implemented economic reforms to rescue farmers and banks. FDR’s extraordinary accomplishments in his first term set a standard against which few presidents can match up — regardless of whether that comparison makes sense or not. And that standard makes zero sense in 2021.

Until FDR, no president was expected to change the world in 100 days. When George Washington took the oath of office on April 30, 1789, the First Federal Congress hadn’t even created the executive departments yet. Rather than announcing his platform in his first inaugural address, Washington asked Congress to “acquit” him of the responsibility to recommend necessary and expedient measures until he had a better lay of the land. Furthermore, Thomas Jefferson didn’t take office as secretary of state until March 22, 1790, nearly a year into Washington’s term — so clearly there was no widespread expectation about what the first president would accomplish in the first 100 days.

Americans were also willing to extend more patience to Abraham Lincoln. Both Northerners and Southerners were naively convinced they would win the Civil War quickly, and the Union expected Lincoln to lead the war effort. But even though the war was still ongoing several years later, voters in the Union reelected Lincoln by a ten-point margin and overwhelming electoral college victory in 1864. 

If anything, 1933 was a historical aberration. For example, on March 4, the Senate unanimously confirmed FDR’s entire Cabinet without hearings on the day of his inauguration. After taking the oath of office, the president returned to the White House, greeted a few guests at the afternoon tea, then got to work. Upstairs in the second-floor oval drawing room, Justice Benjamin Cardozo was waiting to swear in the entire Cabinet as a group — for the first and only time in U.S. history. Recognizing the enormous challenge facing the nation, the Senate had moved quickly to provide FDR with his chosen Cabinet, so that the administration could get to work on day one. In FDR’s entire 12 years in office, Republicans cast only 83 “no” votes scattered across 25 Cabinet nominees.  

Since FDR, few presidents have taken office with the crisis conditions that compels an administration and Congress to take such drastic action. However, on January 20, 2021, President Biden took office amid his own economic crisis, a global pandemic, ongoing climate change and oppressive systemic racism. Yet, the partisan divide in Congress prevented Biden from meeting with his complete Cabinet until April 1. Additionally, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland was confirmed with only 51 “yes” votes, Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra received just 50 “yes” votes and Biden’s withdrew Neera Tanden as his nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget after the Senate indicated that it would reject her nomination. A far cry from the rapid, unanimous confirmations for FDR’s Cabinet. 

Republican obstruction also delays Biden’s ability to get comprehensive legislation passed. While the polling was imperfect, a majority of Americans clearly approved of FDR’s New Deals programs and Republican votes in the Senate represented this widespread support. For example, the Emergency Banking Act passed with overwhelming support and was enacted within four hours of its introduction on March 9, 1933.

Almost 90 years later, nearly 70 percent of Americans support Biden’s COVID-19 relief legislation, yet not one Republican in either the House of Representatives or the Senate voted for the bill. The political reality of 1933 cannot be applied to 2021.

Although we should not hold presidents to the 1933 standard, voters do need a way to evaluate a president’s time in office. The first 18 months provides a much more valuable, and realistic, marker of progress. When presidents enter office, they have the maximum amount of goodwill and political power they are likely to receive. 

After 18 months, their ability to implement serious reform dwindles. Congress turns its focus to midterm elections and has little time to devote to a president’s agenda, then the midterm elections often reduce the president’s influence in Congress. Since FDR’s presidency, the president’s party has lost 26 seats in Congress on average in midterm elections. With a razor-thin margin in both the House and the Senate, Biden has no room to spare and can’t count on passing legislation after the midterm elections. 

While pundits might focus on the first 100 days, voters should not apply this historic, but unrealistic standard to the 21st century. Instead, they should evaluate the accomplishments of the first 18 months of the Biden administration when they go to the polls in November 2022.  

Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D. is a presidential historian and scholar in residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College. She is also the author of “The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution” and can be followed on Twitter @lmchervinsky.

Tags biden first 100 days Deb Haaland first 100 days Franklin D. Roosevelt George Washington Joe Biden Neera Tanden Presidents of the United States Xavier Becerra

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