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 i ts 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 activis m 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.
Some presidents got off to a rocky start in their first 100 days.
Take Bill Clinton. He won an early victory by moving a $1.5 trillion budget outline through Congress, which was controlled by fellow Democrats. But Clinton's first 100 days in 1993 were also marked by a string of political setbacks and public-relations disasters.
They included his decision to allow gays to serve in the military under a "don't ask, don't tell" standard. This meant that the military would no longer ask if its members were homosexual, and individual soldiers wouldn't be expected to volunteer the information. The decision caused a huge stir, angering people on all sides of the issue, and they turned their ire on President Clinton. Some said he went too far; others argued that he didn't go far enough. The furor diverted public and media attention away from Clinton's larger priorities, including healthcare reform and passing a budget.
Clinton also ran into trouble in naming an attorney general, over winning congressional approval of an economic stimulus package, and over disorganization at the White House. Perhaps most important, he alienated many legislators by placing his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in charge of healthcare reform and not adequately consulting Congress about her proposals. His opponents were able to portray the package as a massive government intervention, and the defeat of Mrs. Clinton's plan set back the cause of healthcare reform for years.
Clinton also got into hot water over new limits on news media access to senior communications aides and over the firing of the White House travel office staffers who were replaced with Clinton friends.
One of Clinton's problems, as assessed by his budget director, Leon Panetta, was that he needed to do "a better job of picking and choosing the battles he wants to go through." This is also a criticism of President Obama today—that he is piling too much on his plate and overloading Congress.
Of course, none of this turned out to be determinative. Clinton corrected most of the early problems and won re-election in 1996 over former Republican Sen. Bob Dole.
Another president who had early problems was Republican Gerald Ford. A man whose ambitions had been limited to climbing the leadership ladder in Congress, Ford was a member of the House of Representatives from Michigan from 1949 to 1973. President Richard Nixon made Ford his vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned amid a scandal. Ford was vice president for only eight months when Nixon resigned in August 1974 because of the Watergate scandal and Ford succeeded to the top job. "Our long national nightmare is over," the new president told the country at his swearing-in.
Ford spent his first days trying to use candor and openness to contrast himself with the secretive and suspicious Nixon, and he got off to a good start. The White House even released photos of Ford making his own English muffin for breakfast, and such images helped to reassure the country that Ford wasn't an imperial president like the man he replaced. Americans liked his down-to-earth qualities.
But Ford's honeymoon ended a month after he took over when, on September 8, he pardoned Nixon for any crimes related to the Watergate scandal. Ford believed that, with the nation facing serious economic problems and lingering difficulties in extracting itself from the Vietnam War, he needed to move past the Nixon furor. But the pardon turned congressional Democrats and many everyday Americans against Ford. Many thought he had been wrong to let Nixon off the hook, and many suspected he and Nixon arranged a deal—the presidency for the pardon. Ford always denied that.
Ford never recovered his popularity, and many historians think he doomed his presidency with the pardon during his first 100 days. He lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.
The irony is that today, historians see the pardon in much more positive terms—as a legitimate move to heal the nation, which was Ford's explanation in the first place.