You probably already know that Donald Trump has been president for just over 100 days. In fact, you’re probably sick of hearing about it. The “first 100 days” is a convenient time for the media to write about how the president is doing, the main themes of the presidency so far and its strengths and weaknesses. As Day 100 hit on Saturday, everyone got into the act.1
There’s some evidence that the early part of a presidency confers advantages on the White House not easily recovered later. Newly elected administrations tend to be at their most popular — at least historically speaking — and therefore at their most productive. So 100 days isn’t a completely meaningless milestone. But is it really reasonable to start drawing conclusions about a president and what he will be remembered for after only 100 days?
I can’t answer that question definitively, but there are some patterns that emerge from looking at how well historical 100-day coverage has held up. The concept has been floating around in the news media since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s day, but it really got going with Ronald Reagan. So let’s start around April 29, 1981.
The end of Reagan’s first 100 days came just a month after he survived an assassination attempt. As one might expect, this attempt boosted his popularity. But it didn’t improve his productivity. Hundred-day accounts suggested that Reagan had been a decisive and effective communicator but hadn’t actually accomplished much. His speeches stressed a new direction for the nation. The combination of his focus on the economy and his clear message of change earned comparisons to Roosevelt. Yet, observers also warned that Reagan’s changes had mainly been rhetorical: lots of vision, less action. Some journalists argued that 100 days in, Reagan still didn’t have a defined foreign policy.
The lens of history maintains Reagan’s reputation as an important shaper of rhetoric and culture. Reagan redefined the political agenda and set a new standard for presidential communication, especially televised speeches. Both those accomplishments were apparent in Reagan’s first few months in office. Evaluations of his policy achievements are more mixed. Despite the ideological clarity of his rhetoric, Reagan’s actions could be more nuanced. Despite promises to shrink government, for example, Reagan added to the national debt and to federal spending. And, of course, there are plenty of people who disagree with the substance of his record, especially on civil rights and slowness to act on the AIDS crisis.
Still, even early on, there were signs of the iconic status that Reagan would achieve within his own party. There were also signs that the meaning of this legacy would be up for grabs. Had you formed your opinion about Reagan on Day 101 of his administration and then ignored the rest of his presidency, you would have missed a lot, but your sense of Reagan’s leadership style and priorities wouldn’t be wildly off.
George H.W. Bush
The first sitting vice president to be elected president since Martin Van Buren, Bush disavowed the 100-days mark by suggesting that “we aren’t radically shifting things.”2 But the 100 days coverage of his presidency revealed the challenge that this presented: What was Bush supposed to do? A New York Times editorial maintained that Bush “won no mandate for change and hasn’t pretended to Congress that anybody gave him one.” The same piece, however, also observed that Bush had broken away from Reagan’s legacy on aid to Central American rebel groups and on the environment. Theodore Sorensen, who had been a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, praised Bush’s caution, noting, “better Bush plodding” than Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs, Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon or Reagan’s support for the Contras in Nicaragua.
In contrast with Reagan, the 100-days narrative for Bush portrayed a president looking for, well, a narrative.
The three things for which Bush would become most known – the first Gulf War, the abandonment of his “no new taxes” pledge, and losing re-election in 1992 — were nowhere to be seen in those first 100 days. But the roots of those challenges were evident: Bush could amass public support, but was often stymied when it came to translating that support into a cohesive policy agenda (several of the first 100 days pieces mentioned the “vision thing”). Throughout his presidency, Bush was vulnerable to attacks from the left and the right, and even, it turned out, from the center; that dynamic was evident in his early months
Of all the presidents surveyed here, Clinton’s 100-days coverage was by far the most negative. A New York Times op-ed compared him to Jimmy Carter, citing weak leadership at home and abroad. Other accounts painted him as the reverse of Reagan: some considerable policy accomplishments — he passed a stimulus package, for example — but lacking a coherent agenda or “purpose.” Clinton was also unfavorably compared with Reagan in terms of his lack of “authenticity.”
The main picture we get from Clinton at the 100-days mark is one of a White House struggling with both management and meaning; things weren’t going particularly well.
In many ways, Clinton turned this around after the 1994 midterm elections (which brought staggering losses to his party). A booming economy and a landslide re-election against Republican Bob Dole in 19963 were sources of political strength in the second term.
So the overall tone and direction of Clinton’s 100-days coverage — he was failing — wasn’t particularly predictive; he’s mostly remembered as having a successful presidency. And although Clinton’s marital infidelities were part of the 1992 campaign, the 100-days coverage is mostly devoid of the character issues that would come to define Clinton’s last years in office. In April 1993, no one knew that Clinton would eventually face impeachment — or soaring approval ratings while Congress debated removing him from office. Finally, his biggest policy legacies, the 1994 Crime Bill and 1996 welfare reform legislation, were enacted well after the first 100 days had passed. Overall, then, Clinton’s 100-day coverage didn’t hit the marks history would.
George W. Bush
Few presidencies have been so defined by major events as George W. Bush’s: the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the financial collapse of 2008 all shaped the president’s course and the public’s reaction to it. And so it’s not surprising that Bush’s 100-day coverage didn’t serve as all that clear of a crystal ball — none of the above items were on the public agenda when Bush’s first 100 days came to an end in 2001.
Instead, Bush earned favorable reviews for his quiet but steadfast approach to the presidency. CNN reported that he avoided the “distractions” that Clinton had created with Cabinet appointment controversies and fumbling on the “gays in the military” issue. But soon after taking office, Bush had also established a reputation as an unwavering conservative who would “go to the right every chance he got;” there was “something almost Oedipal about his revitalization of Republican stereotypes,” according to The New York Times. Early on, Bush had set his reputation as someone with a decidedly conservative approach, even if he applied it to a modest agenda at first.
These accounts are consistent with the ideological leadership style for which Bush came to be known. But while initial reports suggested that the public responded well to this style overall, Bush’s adherence to his principles and worldview in the face of a natural disaster, a long and complicated war, and finally an economic crisis, also limited his ability to lead the nation. These issues, especially the Iraq War, divided Americans. And when Bush left office, his approval was just 34 percent – the lowest for a president leaving office since Carter.
Obama’s first 100 days arrived with a great deal of media fanfare. Time and The Washington Post devoted multiple stories and multimedia features to assessing the president’s early term. The Post coverage included the nuances in Obama’s rhetorical tone, the “boldness” of his agenda – and its context in the midst of the Great Recession. An ABC News report focused on Obama’s reversals of Bush’s policies, especially in the areas of gay rights and drug policy – although, notably, these actions were mostly taken unilaterally, through executive orders and other directives. Hints of the polarization that would come to define Obama’s presidency were also evident in accounts of the stimulus package, which passed in the House of Representatives with no Republican votes. In Time, Mark Halperin lists the “failure to ameliorate the partisan divide” as one of the few blemishes on his early presidency.
Testing this coverage against Obama’s legacy is tough at this stage. He’s only been out of office for about 100 days, after all. We now know that Obama’s presidency would come to be defined by gridlock rather than a revival of New Deal-style policy. And Halperin was not wrong: Partisan polarization was as stark as ever when Obama left office in January. But what the early narratives don’t focus on is what seems likely to be a defining feature of his legacy: the hope of a post-racial America, and how quickly those hopes faded.
What 100-days coverage tells us
It’s too soon to draw any firm conclusions about the Trump era. After only 100 days, there’s plenty of time for a presidency to change course. Sometimes presidents adopt new strategies. Major events — especially in foreign policy and the economy — can also reshape the trajectory of a presidency.
What about tentative conclusions? Sure. Historically, some elements of the first 100 days coverage resonate with later evidence. Typically, we’ve gotten a sense for a president’s style, priorities and weaknesses 100 days in. Reagan’s rhetorical legacy was in the works. It was clear that George H.W. Bush was in a tricky spot politically. The younger Bush had demonstrated his conservative philosophy. Legacies on policy are more opaque, though. Obama hadn’t tackled health care yet. George W. Bush hadn’t constructed the modern national security apparatus.
So at the end of Trump’s presidency, when we look back at his first 100 days, we’ll probably see many signs of what came after. We’ll likely conclude that we came to know Trump as a leader by then. But we’ll see lots of red herrings, too. And there’s a strong possibility that Trump’s presidency will be defined — at least in part — by events and policies that no one is thinking about currently. Right now, moreover, it’s difficult to identify which elements will fade away, and which themes and traits are the ones for which Trump will be remembered.