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President Franklin D. Roosevelt Set 100-Day Standard

Apr 21, 2017
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

President Trump will hit his first a hundred days in office at the end of next week. This morning on Twitter, he called that milestone a ridiculous standard despite actively campaigning on what he would accomplish in his first a hundred days. But as NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports, Trump might be on to something.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The first 100 days is ubiquitous...

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The first 100 days is a crucial period for any new president.

KEITH: ...Embedded in cable TV graphics, newspaper headlines. And yes, you'll be hearing a lot about it on NPR in the next week or so. This American political construct goes back to 1933 and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's dash to staunch a banking crisis and pull America out of the Great Depression.

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FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT: Every resource at our command we have devoted and we are devoting to the end of justifying your confidence.

KEITH: The hundred days is a term Roosevelt is credited with coining in one of his fireside chats. But this idea of grading presidents on their first 100 days is arbitrary, based on misunderstanding and legend, so says historian Patrick Maney.

PATRICK MANEY: Presidents since Roosevelt have been held up to a standard that not even Roosevelt (laughter) achieved.

KEITH: But wait, you say. Roosevelt signed a record 15 major pieces of legislation in that first 100 days. Maney, who is a professor at Boston College and has written books about Presidents Clinton and FDR, is on something of a quixotic mission to set the record straight. The idea of President Roosevelt coming to office with a big agenda and a compliant Congress is a myth, he says.

MANEY: Only two or, at most, three of those measures actually originated in the White House. Almost all the rest had originated in Congress, and many, including federal relief to the unemployed, the Tennessee Valley Authority, had been up for debate for years.

KEITH: Roosevelt initially, at least, opposed the creation of the FDIC. Now it is one of the enduring legacies of his first 100 days. So what Maney is saying here is it wasn't just about the president. It was about Congress, too, and that's a lesson many presidents have learned over time - that their greatest domestic achievements come not from the White House but from their ability to work with the 535 people down at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

And often, it takes a long time. Social Security was created two years after Roosevelt took office. The major immigration and tax legislation during President Reagan's administration didn't come until nearly six years in.

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RONALD REAGAN: In a moment, I'll be sitting at that desk, taking up a pen and signing the most sweeping overhaul of tax code in our nation's history.

KEITH: Welfare reform happened in President Clinton's second term.

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BILL CLINTON: Today we are ending welfare as we know it. But I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended but for what it began.

KEITH: Put another way, the presidency is a long game. This is something President Kennedy argued in his inaugural address after laying out an ambitious agenda.

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JOHN F KENNEDY: All this will not be finished in the first 100 days, nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days.

KEITH: During his first 100 days, Kennedy authorized the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion. President Reagan was nearly killed in an assassination attempt. President Clinton's first hundred days were almost universally seen as a disaster. There were withdrawn nominations, an economic stimulus plan that died before it got off the ground and a debate over gays in the military that distracted from the rest of his agenda. Yet when Clinton left office eight years later, he had 66 percent approval. For President George W. Bush, the first 100 days ended as a work in progress with his education and tax legislation still awaiting congressional approval.

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GEORGE W BUSH: We've had some good debates. We've made some good progress. And it looks like we're going to pass some good law.

KEITH: The late journalist Daniel Schorr summed it up this way.

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DANIEL SCHORR: If you say, what has he done in a hundred days - not much.

KEITH: Of course President Bush's time in office isn't defined by laws or taxes but by events no one could have predicted at the end of his first 100 days. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.