The Importance of the First 100 Days

“Is it about policy or is it about theater?” Elizabeth Edwards asked about the first 100 days of a new presidency at a Center for American Progress Action Fund event Friday. Edwards, a CAPAF Senior Fellow, joined Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter and Clinton administration adviser Michael Waldman to discuss the tradition of the first 100 days, both historically and for the upcoming administration.

Alter recently published The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, about the successes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Hundred Days and which of his characteristics made it possible. By looking through the lens of FDR’s experience as well as those of Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, and a handful of other previous presidents, the three panelists discussed the possibilities, lessons learned, and advice for starting a new presidency.

“It was very much a seat-of-the-pants operation,” Alter said of FDR’s experience. “There was no blueprint.” Instead, Roosevelt used his executive powers to make 15 major changes. Since then, most presidents have resented the precedent he set.

Alter stressed the necessity of employing the first 100 days to its fullest potential. “[You must] strike while the iron is hot, while that mandate, if you have one, is fresh,” he said. During this time, everyone “plays together nicely,” he said. “There is a lot of goodwill.”

Waldman warned against the trap defined by Roosevelt’s shadow, as the media may overfocus on that time. “Mistakes are there, and they last past the first 100 days,” he said. “In a sense, more can go wrong in the hundred days than can go right.” Waldman emphasized the importance of picking qualified, experienced political advisers to help shape a new administration, much as Reagan did.

The participants also discussed the matter of temperament, an important quality for any president, according to Alter. “[The American people] want to see confidence,” said Waldman. “Joy and passion” are necessary attributes for setting a defining tone for a new administration.

One new challenge of the presidency is running a country with a rapid-fire, 24-hour news cycle and the omnipresent voices of the Internet. Woodrow Wilson, for example, was able to take two weeks off to decide what to do about World War I. The Clinton administration, said Waldman, had no such luxury and instead replied to accusations and attacks within a day.

In addition, Alter suggested that the new president utilize his power of executive order to lift the spirits of the people, as Roosevelt did when legalizing a specialized type of beer in the middle of Prohibition. Roosevelt proved that the first 100 days can set a mood in addition to achieving changes in policy—theater rather than policy.

Finally, Alter, Waldman, and Edwards said that working off a predecessor, whether detested or not, is important for a new administration. “They define themselves in part by who they’re not,” Waldman said. Although the conversation mainly focused on a change following a disliked president, Alter mentioned that Lyndon B. Johnson was able to succeed by making his first 100 days a memorial to Kennedy.

Possible solutions to health care problems and the Iraq war will be important, but the essential lesson from these historic examples is not a specific policy change.

“No president can really succeed at doing big things if they’re not able…to transport Americans to a higher place,” Alter said.