President Joe Biden has announced ambitious plans for his first 100 days, including mammoth economic and environmental initiatives and herculean efforts around health care, education and social justice.
And though early public opinion polls show that most Americans hold Biden and his goal of uniting the nation in high regard, the question remains: Will support for Biden's ambitious agenda last?
One key factor will be his relationship with the news media. Over the past 40 years, as positive presidential-media relations devolved, so too did the chance of gaining the public mandate to enact the president's legislative agenda. Moreover, when greeted with adversarial coverage, presidents from both parties have tended to act in a Nixonian fashion by circumventing elite national reporters and attempting to speak directly to the U.S. public. But bypassing the media only further inflames tensions and builds mistrust. For the Biden administration, such a tact would ultimately undermine its promise to govern with integrity and transparency.
It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who famously introduced the first 100 days as a measure of presidential effectiveness. During the first months of his presidency, he passed 15 major pieces of legislation as the "starting of the wheels of the New Deal," an accomplishment that he assessed and celebrated with the American public in one of his famous fireside chats. However, despite his masterful efforts to go public with a tour de force of spin, his relationship with arguably the most important audiences in Washington — the working press and Congress — soon began to deteriorate and slow his legislative agenda. Nevertheless, Roosevelt's self-made mythology about the significance of the first 100 days survived and became a measuring stick of presidential effectiveness in the decades ahead.
By the 1960s, common political logic, espoused by the high priests of U.S. journalism, history and political science, dictated that presidential success depended on a robust first 100 days. Even though some political elites acknowledged that this litmus test was "silly," an absurd political "trap," staff within presidential administrations recognized its importance as a journalistic milestone. Thus, even as they attempted to limit expectations for the first 100 days, as John F. Kennedy did in his inaugural address by acknowledging that "all this will not be finished in the first hundred days," White House communications staff often attempted to frame even minor legislative victories, such as the Kennedy administration's creation of the Peace Corps, as major administrative accomplishments.
News reporters, however, had begun to bristle at such news management techniques. They recognized that these public relations efforts were part of a new trend in which official reports from government sources went beyond spin, to posturing, hedging or even misleading and distorting rather than telling the objective truth. "As long as officials merely didn't tell the whole truth, very few of us complained," New York Times journalist James "Scotty" Reston admitted. But Vietnam and then later Watergate exposed the dangers of half-truths. By the time Jimmy Carter took office, newshounds like Reston "foamed at the mouth like a pack of wild dogs," as Carter's press secretary Jody Powell put it years later.
And yet, Carter's solution to this adversarial media landscape made the problem worse, and nothing exposed this quite like his struggle for positive coverage during the first 100 days.
In his first 100 days, Carter held only five news conferences, a far cry from the 28 that Roosevelt convened or even the 10 that Richard Nixon held. Instead, he meticulously orchestrated pseudo-events such as "Ask President Carter" or "Dial-A-President," seamlessly choreographed by his television and special projects adviser Barry Jagoda in conjunction with the Carter administration's People's Program and CBS News Executive Emerson Stone.
Respected journalists, such as CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, quickly tired of such "cardigan gimmicks," and popular entertainment figures like Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray poked fun at the Carter administration's contrived efforts at showbiz politics on "Saturday Night Live." In one memorable sketch, for instance, Aykroyd, parodying Carter, attempted to assuage the acid-fueled panic of one caller by encouraging him to "relax, stay inside and listen to some . . . Allman Brothers."
More significantly, in the eyes of some journalists, such productions contradicted one of the central promises Carter had made: to "never tell a lie." Instead, they represented a calculated publicity stunt designed to showcase the president honoring campaign promises - such as the pardoning of Vietnam draft dodgers — and other minor policy victories, while simultaneously sidestepping concerns from the Washington media about the Carter administration's energy and economic policies, as well as emerging questions about potential financial corruption and wrongdoing by Bert Lance, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and one of Carter's closest friends.
Recognizing Carter's revived fireside chats and events for what they were — media pseudo-events and a way to escape serious journalistic scrutiny — reporters looked elsewhere for news pegs about the Carter administration. They found news crumbs for another story that made for a more compelling headline: a White House in disarray amid the emerging Bert Lance scandal. Clamoring to be the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein, news reporters stationed themselves outside of Lance's Georgetown home in search of any evidence of presidential scandal that might eclipse the one they had uncovered under the Nixon administration less than a decade ago. Biased toward sensational investigative coverage, they offered their audiences "Lancegate," the saga of a president who promised to be above the corruption of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, but who made an error in moral judgment by remaining loyal to a friend and adviser who engaged in "sweetheart [banking] arrangements" and unethical financial "wheeling and dealing."
That media impression of a White House in disarray lingered throughout the entirety of Carter's presidency, constraining his ability to enact campaign promises and paving the way for the idea of a "failed presidency" during the economic downturn and Iranian hostage crisis that plagued the final year of Carter's term.
Perhaps naively, Carter's successors, too, expected a honeymoon with the news media, but amid an increasingly adversarial and, with time, highly partisan media milieu, they often encountered friction and discord. Besieged with negative media coverage that undermined their ability to effectively govern, most of Carter's political heirs further limited journalists' access, instead relying on news management techniques and showbiz politics — and at times, lashing out, deriding partisan news media for its lies. The rise of cable news, then talk radio and later the Internet and social media, only made it easier and more tempting to try to circumvent journalists and speak directly to voters through partisan platforms and scripted, low-pressure events.
In the end, as Biden has witnessed over the course of his nearly five-decade political career, this credibility crisis in presidential politics culminated with acrimonious presidential-press relations during the Trump administration, which regularly attacked the "fake news" media, while receiving coverage twice as negative as Trump's predecessors during his first 100 days, according to Pew Research Center.
Though the news media might always surprise Biden with a Herblock-inspired "free shave," he and his staff would do well to remember that a presidential honeymoon was always too good to be true.
Roessner is an associate professor in the University of Tennessee's School of Journalism & Electronic Media and the author of "Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign," recently published by LSU Press. This piece was written for The Washington Post.