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.
Lyndon B. Johnson had a specific objective in mind that guided his presidency from the start—to out-do Franklin D. Roosevelt as the champion of everyday Americans. LBJ got off to a fast start, but the very traits that made his presidency so promising in the beginning—his big ideas and ability to bend Congress to his will—proved to be the seeds of his political destruction.
"Throughout his presidency, Lyndon B. Johnson consistently measured his record against that of his political hero, FDR," writes Cambridge University historian Anthony Badger in FDR: The First Hundred Days. "In April 1965 he pressed his congressional liaison man, Larry O'Brien, to 'jerk out every damn little bill you can and get them down here by the 12th' because 'on the 12th you'll have the best Hundred Days. Better than he [FDR] did!"
That was actually after Johnson had been elected to a full term in his own right, in 1964, but it demonstrated his mindset. Johnson, serving as John F. Kennedy's vice president, actually had come into office by succession after Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. He sought to capitalize on the Kennedy's murder by moving swiftly to continue Kennedy's legacy. He immediately pushed Congress to pass Kennedy's agenda to honor the martyred president but also by moving far beyond it and expanding federal power more than any president had done before, even Roosevelt.
"Johnson believed that in the months after the assassination he needed to link himself to the deceased president, who seemed to become more popular after his death," says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer. "And he used that connection to build popular support for his bills. That is why Johnson retained the services of many Cabinet officials from the Kennedy administration."
In his first speech to a joint session of Congress on Nov. 27, 1963, five days after the assassination, Johnson asked for support in completing Kennedy's stalled agenda. He hailed Kennedy as "the greatest leader of our time" and said, "Let us begin. Let us continue."
He didn't match FDR in his legislative success during his first 100 days in 1963, but eventually he exceeded Roosevelt in the extent to which he expanded federal power in society. He also won a massive landslide in his 1964 campaign, which LBJ felt vindicated his leadership.
In those first days in 1963, he succeeded in the all-important goal of boosting the nation's confidence. "By contrast with Mr. Obama," wrote historian Robert Dallek in the New York Times Jan 23, 2009, "Johnson had no mandate to govern except for being vice president. No one expected a Southern politician to suddenly replace the youngest man ever elected to the White House. . . . Johnson understood that his greatest initial challenge was to provide reassurance—to convince not just Americans but people around the world, who looked to the United States for leadership in the cold war, that he could measure up to the standard JFK had set as an effective president at home and abroad."
Johnson had been a consummate legislative deal maker before Kennedy chose him to balance the ticket as his vice presidential running mate in 1960. But Johnson, a longtime senator from Texas, was never a member of Kennedy's inner circle. Many liberal Democrats were skeptical of him as a Southerner and Washington operator when he succeeded Kennedy. But Johnson "was able to turn the country's grief into a commitment to a moral crusade," presidential scholar Jeffrey Tulis has written. It took him longer than 100 days, but he set Congress on the path to passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as a tax cut and Medicare. Actually, he sought to pass more legislation, help more people, lift more Americans out of poverty, and become more of a historic figure than FDR. And in some ways he succeeded, under a program he called the Great Society.
"In many ways Johnson was inadequate to the demands of the modern presidency, especially as a public educator," wrote political scientists Sidney Milkis and Michael Nelson in The American Presidency: Origins & Development 1776-1998. "Unlike other twentieth-century presidents who wanted to remake the nation, LBJ neglected, even scorned, the 'bully pulpit.' Yet Johnson profoundly influenced the modern presidency in other ways. He more than maintained the power and independence of the executive office. Regrettably, his failings also brought into serious question—for the first time since the 1930s—the widespread assumption that the national interest is served whenever the president dominates the affairs of state. The disillusionment with executive power that commenced late in Johnson's tenure actually began to unravel some of the conditions that had given rise to the modern presidency."
As the Vietnam War escalated, with soaring costs in lives and resources, and as the nation's domestic divisions intensified over Johnson's ambitious social programs, the president's popularity sank. He declined to run for re-election in 1968 and left office a very unpopular man.
But in the beginning, he seemed to be a force of nature. In an interview with three network television journalists March 15, 1964, Johnson assessed his first 100 days. "The first priority," he said, "was to try to display to the world that we could have continuity and transition, that the program of President Kennedy would be carried on, that there was no need for them to be disturbed and fearful that our constitutional system had been endangered. To demonstrate to the people of this country that although their leader had fallen, and we had a new president, that we must have unity and we must close ranks, and we must work together for the good of all America and the world."
Johnson accomplished those initial goals admirably well.