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A President’s First 100 Days Really Do Matter

By his 100th day in office, Franklin D. Roosevelt had already begun to reshape government’s role in the American economy. He declared and then lifted a national banking holiday, signed bills that provided government relief for farmers and the unemployed, and pushed for new federal jobs programs.1 For every president since, the ghost of Roosevelt has loomed: Can they rack up as many accomplishments as he did? Donald Trump, who will start Day 1 of his presidency on Friday, faces the same expectations. So how much do new presidents typically accomplish during this period? What standard should Trump be held to?

Available evidence generally suggests that presidents’ first 100 days have become less productive since the sprint at the beginning of FDR’s first term. Political scientists John Frendreis, Raymond Tatalovich and Jon Schaff, found that while the FDR effect may have put the pressure on modern presidents, modern Congresses aren’t any more productive during the first 100 days. They looked at presidents from William McKinley in 1897 to Bill Clinton in 1993, and found that the average number of laws passed during a president’s first 100 days period before the 81st Congress (1947-1949) was 46 compared to 16 in later Congresses. The last two presidents have followed suit: There were seven bills passed during George W. Bush’s first 100 days in 2001, and 11 in Obama’s in 2009, according to Govtrack’s statistics.

PRESIDENT BILLS PASSED INTO LAW
Franklin Roosevelt 76
Harry Truman* 55
Dwight Eisenhower 22
John Kennedy 26
Lyndon Johnson* 10
Richard Nixon 9
Jimmy Carter 22
Ronald Reagan 9
George H.W. Bush 18
Bill Clinton 24
George W. Bush 7
Barack Obama 11
Laws passed in the first 100 days

*Took office after predecessor’s death, so we’re counting the first 100 days of their full elected terms — 1949 for Truman and 1965 for Johnson. Gerald Ford is omitted from the list.

Sources: FRENDREIS, TATALOVICH AND SCHAFF (2001); GOVTRACK

So, what changed? Early legislative productivity declined in the 1950s because of changes in how Congress works, according to Frendreis, Tatalovich and Schaff. The authors suggest that stronger subcommittees during this period “added a new layer of decision-makers to the legislative process, which potentially would slow down the pace of legislative enactments during the 100 days period.”

As you might expect, whether the same party controls the presidency and Congress has a big effect on how much legislation passes in the first 100 days, as does the state of the economy (more laws are passed when economic conditions are bad). They identify FDR’s first 100 days in 1933 as exceptional, with not only an unusually high number of bills passed, but also more than one major piece of legislation (using some widely accepted political science measures of major legislation). That FDR was president during the Great Depression and had large Democratic majorities in Congress helped, too.

Even if first-100-day productivity has declined, however, it remains one of a president’s best chances to enact his agenda, according to work by Casey Dominguez. Looking at the question of the “presidential honeymoon,” Dominguez found that, when looking at bills on which presidents took public positions, chief executives do enjoy greater rates of success with Congress early on. This is not fully explained by a public opinion bounce (most incoming presidents are popular) or by strategic choices about which bills to support during the first 100 days. Her research concludes that presidents do enjoy a “100-day honeymoon” with Congress, and that their influence during this period is demonstrably higher than later on in the administration.

Of course, legislation is not the only yardstick of presidential success. New presidents can also take advantage of their unilateral power to direct the executive branch. For example, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama issued memoranda reversing the previous administration’s rules about abortion funding and international aid shortly after taking office. One of Jimmy Carter’s early executive orders was related to his pardon of Vietnam draft-dodgers. For some time, unilateral action during the first 100 days seemed to be on the decline, but it climbed back up under Obama.

Here are the number of executive orders issued by each president since FDR during their first 100 days, as well as the number of executive orders from other presidents they revoked. On balance, modern presidents have issued more executive orders in their first 100 days than the second 100 days. There are some exceptions, though — George W. Bush, Carter, Dwight Eisenhower and FDR.2

PRESIDENT EXECUTIVE ORDERS EXECUTIVE ORDERS REVOKED
Franklin D. Roosevelt* 99
Harry Truman** 25 0
Dwight Eisenhower 20 1
John F. Kennedy 23 11
Lyndon Johnson** 26 5
Richard Nixon 15 1
Jimmy Carter 16 5
Ronald Reagan 18 18
George H.W. Bush 11 4
Bill Clinton 13 2
George W. Bush 11 4
Barack Obama 19 9
Executive orders in the first 100 days

*The number of orders signed by Roosevelt is taken from the FDR Library because the American Presidency Project — the source for the other presidents’ executive orders — omits many of Roosevelt’s.
**Took office after his predecessor’s death, so we’re counting the first 100 days of their full elected terms — in 1949 for Truman and 1965 for Johnson. Gerald Ford is omitted from the list.

Source: Meredith Conroy

But even looking at laws and executive orders doesn’t really solve the problems inherent in trying to quantify how productive a new administration is. Increasingly, accomplishing something in government means undoing policies you don’t agree with. This is especially important for Republican administrations, who normally seek office on the promise of less government, not more. (Although the incoming administration may be an exception.)

Obama’s early legislative accomplishments included things like expanding health insurance coverage for children in low-income households, a policy that had been vetoed by George W. Bush in 2007, and the passage of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, an initiative to combat wage discrimination, also opposed by the Bush White House. Both were major bills that expanded government influence, and they were also visible repudiations of the previous administration. In other words, these were accomplishments for Obama, but preventing them from becoming law had been a mark of success for Bush.

Some of Obama’s early executive orders followed this pattern as well. Just a few weeks after taking office, Obama issued an executive order that addressed Bush’s faith-based initiatives (also an executive order from the 43rd president’s first 100 days). Obama’s directive revised the language of Bush’s order to emphasize “preserving our fundamental constitutional commitments guaranteeing the equal protection of the laws and the free exercise of religion and forbidding the establishment of religion.” Similarly, in March 2009, Obama issued an order “removing barriers to responsible scientific research involving human stem cells,” another direct reversal of a Bush administration position.

Another hurdle to measuring presidential effectiveness: Productivity isn’t just about volume. The scope of laws and executive orders matter, too. FDR’s first 100 days in 1933 were particularly important, for example, because of the context and timing. They resulted in major changes to regulation and governance — changes that “created modern America” through the establishment of new agencies and the effort to provide relief for people suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, according to journalist Adam Cohen. The Great Depression hit with the 1929 stock market crash — not even a year into Herbert Hoover’s presidency. By the time FDR took office in March 1933, the Depression had raged on for years. The newly elected president had made big promises – to alleviate the immediate effects of the Depression and also to start restructuring American institutions to make sure nothing like it happened again. Because the pressure had been building for so long – including the five months between the election and FDR’s Inauguration — it made sense for FDR to focus on early accomplishment.

Even with the problems in measuring presidential success, it’s still likely true that productivity in the first 100 days has decreased. One possible reason for this is that as American politics becomes more partisan and complex, it takes longer to assemble the coalitions necessary for major legislation. Obama’s signature legislative proposal, the Affordable Care Act, came a full year after he took office. Bush’s major legislative accomplishments, tax cuts and No Child Left Behind, also happened well after his first 100 days had come and gone.

How this applies to the incoming Trump administration is hard to say. First, Trump is less popular than any other newly elected president in modern history. Second, many of Trump’s central campaign promises, such as building a wall across the Mexican border and enacting protective trade barriers, depart from the usual Republican legislative agenda. The stated goals of Republican legislative leaders revolve heavily around repealing the Affordable Care Act and paring back social safety net programs like Medicaid and Medicare. The complexity involved in these policy changes, which would affect millions of Americans, suggests that they may take longer to enact.

In this sense, we may see Trump’s first 100 days follow the mold of Obama’s, with a number of bills and executive orders that highlight the major symbolic differences between the new administration and the previous one, and a flurry of executive actions reversing Obama-era policies. But recent history suggests that, despite the pressure of the first 100 days benchmark, major initiatives require sustained attention and effort from the president, and the ability to build a coalition that will hold beyond the honeymoon.

CORRECTION (April 26, 8:18 a.m.): A previous version of the table in this article gave an incorrect figure for the number of executive orders signed by Franklin Roosevelt in his first 100 days. Roosevelt signed 99 orders, not nine. The table was originally based only on data from the American Presidency Project. But their count omits 90 of Roosevelt’s executive orders, according to data from the FDR Library, which shows Roosevelt signing 99 executive orders between March 4 and June 11, 1933.

Footnotes

  1. As Roosevelt’s biographer Jean Edward Smith points out, FDR demanded that Congress meet right away in March, right after he took office in 1933 — an unusual move at the time.
  2. Executive orders aren’t the only type of executive action — there are also memoranda and proclamations. Memoranda, however, are harder to track. And proclamations are typically ceremonial.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties, and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

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