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," Cambridge University historian Anthony Badger writes 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.
In November 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president in a landslide over Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter. Americans decided that the country, driven by economic distress and international embarrassment, needed a big change and that Reagan's conservative, government-is-the-problem philosophy was worth a try.
Reagan began with a whirl of activity. But it was different from Franklin D. Roosevelt's approach in 1933, in that the new president decided he had to set priorities and not load up the system with a plethora of bills, as FDR did during his first 100 days. Congress and the country were too divided to entrust a chief executive with the kind of extraordinary power to experiment that FDR had enjoyed, Reagan and his advisers concluded. As a result, Reagan decided to focus on economic issues first and foremost.
In February 1981, he sent to Congress what some political scientists called some of the most sweeping revisions of budget and tax policy ever attempted. The cornerstones of his plan were an across-the-board tax cut and an effort to reduce the size and growth of the federal government. Reagan had argued for years that government was getting too powerful and intrusive. This was his chance to convert his rhetoric into action, and that's what he did.
Assessing Reagan's 100 days in a U.S. News interview in 1981, political scientist Erwin C. Hargrove, author of The Power of the Modern Presidency, said, "I would give him an A—not necessarily in policy but certainly in political craftsmanship. Reagan has demonstrated, in a way that Jimmy Carter never did, that he understands how to be president. He knows that a president can deal with only a relatively small number of issues at a time. He also understands that his principal task is public leadership. Therefore, he has concentrated primarily upon economic policy and in particular on forming public opinion and developing working relationships with Congress."
In the first few weeks after Reagan submitted the proposals, they sparked enormous controversy and powerful opposition. Many critics said the president was trying to do nothing less than destroy Roosevelt's activist-government legacy from the New Deal. The critics also warned that Reagan was overestimating the revenue that his economic plans would generate and that this would set the stage for huge budget deficits later. Those warnings proved prescient, but at the time, frustrated Americans were ready to do things Reagan's way.
Reagan used his first 100 days very effectively to "undermine" his adversaries in Congress, says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer: "The president used the bully pulpit to overcome opposition among House Democrats [the Senate had gone Republican in the 1980 election], building support for the cuts. He gave a speech on television, urging citizens to write their legislators and tell them to support the cuts. House Democrats, now the sole base for the party in Washington, joined in once they saw the public pressure. In fact, they pushed for tax cuts of their own, which were rolled into the bill. . . . By the end of the bidding process, Reagan could claim victory on Capitol Hill, and his key legislation had drawn the support of his opposition."
What helped to change the dynamic, and greatly strengthened Reagan's hand, was a near tragedy—the attempt on his life by a disturbed publicity-seeker on March 30, a bit more than two months into his administration. John Hinckley's bullets, fired from a small crowd as Reagan was leaving a Washington hotel after a speech, nearly killed the 70-year-old president. But Reagan survived and, in the process, demonstrated grit, bravery, and a sense of humor.
"The shooting is probably what most Americans will remember about the 100 days," recalled former TV commentator Roger Mudd. "And because he performed under fire that day as if it had been in a movie, President Reagan made it difficult for all of us to think of him, ever again, as just another B-grade actor." Political scientist Richard Neustadt wrote in Presidential Studies Quarterly, "The Reagan case, so often cited as exceptional, is less different than it seems, although his gallant response to attempted assassination, coupled with his concentration on a nominally single target, the budget, and Democratic shock after losing the Senate, changed both public and congressional parameters for the time being."
What also helped Reagan was his powerful communication skills. As a former actor in the movies and on television, he was able to appeal directly to the public through frequent speeches and televised addresses from the Oval Office, and Americans quickly came to like him, even if many disagreed with his policies.
It took Reagan more than 100 days to get his program of tax cuts and less government through Congress, but he did succeed. And many historians say it was his first 100 days that paved the way, by enabling Reagan to bond with Middle America and show his determination to keep pushing until his program got through.