As President Donald Trump marks his first 100 days in office, he will be analyzed against a benchmark used by historians and political analysts since Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the Oval Office in 1933 amid the turmoil of The Great Depression.
During FDR’s first 100 days as president, Congress passed a flurry of legislation — 76 bills — aimed at reviving the American economy through massive public works projects and social service programs that employed and fed millions of Americans.
The three-month period subsequently became a gauge used to measure how each new president would perform in the months and years ahead. Although none of Roosevelt’s successors have come close to matching the sheer number of bills he passed in his first weeks in office, presidential historians say the 100 days remains a critical period for each president to lay out their legislative priorities and set the tone for their fledgling administration.
“There is an important way in which the first 100 days is significant and that is that it gives a real indication of the tone of an administration,” said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. “Especially for someone like Trump who has zero political record to go on, this is really an important period for appreciating how the people around him are going to act, how he’s going to act, and how he’s going to respond to events that he can’t control or predict.”
Engel said the real estate executive turned reality TV star so far has “demonstrated his inexperience” in governance, pointing to Trump’s struggle with getting his major legislative proposals approved by Congress, including a plan to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, despite Republicans controlling both the U.S. House and Senate.
“That should be a slam dunk for brand new legislation,” Engel said of the GOP majorities.
On Monday, the White House touted in a news release that Congress has passed 28 new laws since Trump took office, calling it “more” than any other president since Harry Truman’s first 100 days in 1949.
In Truman’s first 100 days lawmakers approved 55 bills, compared to 11 new laws in Obama’s first 100 days, seven under George W. Bush, and 24 under Bill Clinton.
Political scientists caution against looking solely at the number of bills passed as a measure of achievement, without looking at the substance of those measures. They note that among the 28 bills passed by Congress this year, there are several routine bills that typically pass without controversy, such as a pair of bills to rename Veterans Affairs clinics in Pennsylvania and America Samoa, or three bills to approve government board appointees.
“What’s really important is what major legislation has passed, not whether they’ve passed legislation at all,” said John Frendreis, a political science professor at Loyola University Chicago.
Frendreis, who co-authored a study on the productivity of Congress during the first 100 days of every president from William McKinley in 1897 to Bill Clinton in 1993, said typically Congress has been more willing to act swiftly in passing a president’s major legislative proposals when there has been a sizable majority in both chambers, and amid a “crisis atmosphere,” such as an economic downturn.
“If we look at the beginning of the Trump administration, basically neither of those factors are present,” Frendreis said. “We wouldn’t expect a lot or major legislation to be passed in the first 100 days of the Trump presidency because the crisis situation is not really present, and his majorities in Congress are not particularly large compared to historical standards.”
Frendreis, in a phone interview, said Trump is “behind in terms of establishing his legislative agenda,” compared to his modern-day predecessors.
“When you look at President Trump’s initial legislative push I think it’s going to stand up quite poorly to other recent presidents,” Frendreis said. “If you think about the last three presidents — Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama — they all entered office with majorities in their parties, which they then lost fairly quickly in two years or four years . . . but all of them began with some major legislative pushes. The Obama case is kind of unique; the major piece of legislation that he passed right away was the stimulus, the American Recovery Act, that was a bit of crisis legislation. But George W. Bush pushed through some major tax cuts in his first six months, Bill Clinton pushed through a major fiscal policy change that raised taxes and capped spending . . . all of that stuff was done in their first bit of time.”
Frendreis said Trump still has most of his “first year in office in order to move major pieces of legislation,” but could face a harder time getting Congress to act on his proposals during next year’s midterm elections.
“It’s very difficult to get members of Congress to go out on a limb on an election year.” Frendreis said. “His ability to move legislation, or his ability to leave his imprint on legislation and make it his own . . . is really dependent on where he stands in the public opinion polls. I don’t expect him to remain as low as he is right now, but if he stays below 45 percent in the polls, it’s going to be difficult for him to get any type of controversial legislation through.”
A majority of Americans have an unfavorable view of Trump’s job performance, according to recent polls — an average of 52.5 percent of voters say they disapprove of Trump, compared to an average of 41.9 percent who approve of his work according to the poll tracking website Real Clear Politics.
Bruce Miroff, a presidential studies professor at the State University of Albany, said the first 100 days has become a “mythical standard” that presidents since Roosevelt “have rarely been able to come close to measuring up to.”
“It’s kind of an unfortunate measure because it leads people to expect quick action when major things like health care reform take time, they’re complicated,” Miroff said.