The Contemporary Presidency: The Presidential "Hundred Days": An Overview

Article excerpt

The "Hundred Days" of 1933, a term the American media had borrowed from French history, was used to denote Franklin D. Roosevelt's great success with Congress in and after that year's banking crisis. Ever since, the term has been used analogically by journalists to measure the effectiveness of newly elected presidents in their first legislative session and also has been used by certain presidents-elect to plan their postinaugural strategies.

The analogy, however, is not apt. Roosevelt's Congress had come into special session at his call, amid emergency conditions, widely perceived as such. Subsequent presidents have dealt with Congresses in regular session, ricing lesser problems, while one hundred days reaches only to the Easter recess of a modern Congress, not a date for finishing most bills. Even LBJ in 1964, though not a president then elected, riced only a psychological emergency created by his predecessor's murder. And that he rode to early legislative triumphs at the later cost of escalation in Vietnam, imprisoned by his own initial pledge, "let us continue." The next year, newly elected in his own right, Johnson's coattails carried with him the largest Democratic majorities in both Houses since Roosevelt's heyday. With these, in the course of two regular sessions, Johnson launched and carried through the measures for his Great Society.

The original "Hundred Days" had nothing whatever to do with the United States. In the spring of 1815, the former emperor of the French, Napoleon I, escaped from Elba, where he had been exiled after his abdication of the year before. Returning to France, he rallied the army, regained Paris, restored his rule, prepared to fight the rest of Europe still arrayed against him, and at Waterloo in Belgium was decisively defeated. Thereupon, he had to abdicate again and this time was transported far away, to St. Helena in the South Atlantic. This coda to his reign in France lasted one hundred days and was so labeled by historians.

In 1933, when Americans swiped that label, FDR had been sworn in on March 4 (under constitutional provisions before the Twentieth Amendment), while the "lame-duck" session of Congress had adjourned the day before, and the new Congress was not scheduled to meet until the following December. But in March, the country was gripped by financial disaster crowning three years of deepening depression. Banks were failing on every hand. Desperate depositors were losing their life's savings. Desperate businesses were short of cash. Roosevelt at once took executive measures, but he needed legislative authority for more and so called the new Congress into special session. Somewhat to his surprise, he found it so compliant in the face of the emergency that he kept it in session for three months and bargained through it sixteen major bills, many of them newly improvised, such as the National Industrial Recovery Act, and some previously kicked around for years, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority. In sum, they constituted what became known as the "First New Deal."

When FDR ran low on measures and found members running out of steam, he prudently dismissed them and from June until December governed with the Congress out of town. From his call until adjournment, that special session had lasted one hundred days. The press affixed to it the Napoleonic designation.

Ever since, journalists have speculated in advance and summed up after a new president's first hundred days--with Congress routinely in session (thanks to the Twentieth Amendment)--while his legislative success, compared to Roosevelt's, is often at the heart of their stories. And not journalists alone, but also incoming presidents and still more their staffs have often adopted this yardstick, prospectively, before their inaugurations, in commenting on what they hoped to do. Bill Clinton was notorious for this after the 1992 election. Some of them, moreover, have centered their planning on the first three months in office. …