It's not a perfect measure, but it's a useful one—the 100-day standard for gauging presidential effectiveness. The underlying truth is that presidents tend to be most effective when they first take office, when their leadership style seems fresh and new, when the aura of victory is still powerful, and when their impact on Congress is usually at its height. There is nothing magic about the number, and many presidential aides over the years have complained that it is an artificial yardstick. But it has been used by the public, the media, and scholars as a gauge of presidential success and activism since Franklin D. Roosevelt pioneered the 100-day concept when he took office in 1933. He was faced with the calamity of the Depression—and he moved with unprecedented dispatch to address the problem. "The first hundred days of the New Deal have served as a model for future presidents of bold leadership and executive-legislative harmony," writes Cambridge University historian Anthony Badger in FDR: The First Hundred Days. In this series, U.S. News looks at the most far-reaching 100-day periods in presidential history, starting with FDR. The series will run each week on Thursdays.
Harry Truman never had a burning desire to be president. Even when he suddenly took office upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he did it not to fuel his ego but out of a sense of duty because as vice president, he was first in the line of succession.
Roosevelt had chosen Truman, then a relatively obscure senator from Missouri, as his running mate in 1944a compromise choice that didn't alienate too many factions in the Democratic Party. Truman was a solid supporter of FDR's New Deal and had a reputation for honesty and hard work. Few outside FDR's family and inner circle thought the president's health would be an immediate problem, and some believed that FDR would dump Truman after serving a fourth term and tap someone else as his successor. During the 1944 campaign, Truman had little contact with Roosevelt, although he campaigned vigorously for his patron.
After winning his fourth term, FDR saw Truman only twice alone during the 82 days that Truman served as vice president. Then, on April 12, 1945, Roosevelt died of a stroke.
Late that afternoon, Truman was in the office of House Speaker Sam Rayburn for their customary bourbon and water at the end of the workday, when Truman was called to the phone. It was Steve Early, Roosevelt's chief spokesman, who asked Harry to get to the White House as soon as possible. No explanation was offered, and Truman thought he was being given some urgent legislative mission. He rushed to a waiting car, sped to the White House, and walked briskly to the president's private quarters, where he found himself in a room with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
"Harry, the president is dead," she said softly. Truman paused in shock before he asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?"
Mrs. Roosevelt replied with surprising bluntness. "Is there anything we can do for you, Harry?" she asked. "For you are the one in trouble now."
It wasn't the most auspicious beginning, and Truman was deeply worried. He said later that he felt as if he had "been struck by a bolt of lightning." And he told reporters the next day that it was as if "the moon, the stars, and the planets had all fallen on me." He recalled, "I felt as if I had lived five lifetimes in those first days as president."
His concern was justified. Not only did Truman lack national executive experience, but the nation was fighting a world war and he faced widespread doubts that he could fill the immensely popular FDR's shoes. Truman learned quickly how much Roosevelt had left him out of the loop. Most significant and shocking, Truman was never told about the imminent development of the atomic bomb and many details of how Roosevelt envisioned the postwar world.
While FDR had pushed through record amounts of legislation during his first 100 days, Truman knew he could not match that record. But he realized his initial months in office would be just as crucial to getting his administration off to a good start. "Truman possessed little or no charisma, struggled with an ego more fragile than most observers have understood, and had extreme distaste for the need to manipulate others," historian Alonzo Hamby has written. Added presidential scholar Robert Dallek in Harry S. Truman: "Truman appreciated that the best way to reassure the country and build public support for himself was by demonstrating his determination to fulfill Roosevelt's stated wartime and postwar plans." And the new commander in chief believed he needed to show activism and vigor.
He started with a burst of decisions. After being sworn in on April 12, he decided to proceed with the United Nations organizing conference April 25 in San Francisco. In a radio speech to the nation, given before a joint session of Congress on April 16, Truman promised to pursue FDR's objective of unconditional surrender by Germany and Japan. He retained Roosevelt's cabinet. Every night in the White House, Truman read endless memos and files to ready himself for the choices he was facing. He gave particular emphasis to foreign affairs in preparation for his upcoming conference in Potsdam with Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union.