Julian Zelizer: New president's 100 days of pressure

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" and is completing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books.]

When presidents enter the White House, they have approximately 100 days to show what they are made of.

The notion of a "hundred days" is an artificial creation of Franklin Roosevelt after he became president in 1932 in the Great Depression. But it has become a benchmark for evaluating the early success of a president.

The term is more than symbolic. Some presidents have been able to do a lot with those hundred days. Not surprisingly, Roosevelt was the most successful we have seen. His hundred days lasted from March 9 to June 16, 1933, and Congress passed 15 major bills.

Roosevelt, in a period of experimental genius, found support from Congress for a series of programs to help stabilize an economy where 25 percent of the work force was unemployed and banks were imploding as panicked citizens pulled out their money.

The humorist Will Rogers joked that "Congress doesn't pass legislation any more, they just wave at the bills as they go by," though in reality Democratic leaders were instrumental in initiating many of the ideas that came from the White House and making sure that they passed by sound margins.

Roosevelt understood that he had a limited window of opportunity after his election, and he moved fast. "I do not see how any living soul can last physically going the pace that he is going," said Hiram Johnson, "and mentally any one of us would be a psychopathic case if we undertook to do what he is doing."

Over the hundred days, Democrats remade the face of the federal government. Programs were created to regulate Wall Street and banking, support agriculture and labor, provide public works employment, regulate production and more.

Through the legislation, as well as his historic fireside chats, Roosevelt restored confidence in the government itself, as Americans sensed that Washington could save American capitalism. He also used the first months to overcome the many divisions that existed within the Democratic Party.

Lyndon Johnson had a very different kind of hundred days when he took over after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Johnson used his hundred days to define his presidency in relation to his predecessor....

The new president, whether Barack Obama or John McCain, can learn a lesson from all of these presidents about how to break out of the gridlock that has bogged down Washington. They will have to use their hundred days to build confidence in the government and its ability to stabilize the economic system, taking advantage of the narrow window they will have to get legislation through.

The new president will have to define himself in relation to his predecessor, but in this case by demonstrating clearly to the public what he will do differently, rather than the same, as President Bush. And, finally, the new president will need to find legislation that attracts some support from the opposition to diminish the power of polarization on Capitol Hill and establish the groundwork for future compromise.

The one thing that Obama or McCain must realize is that those hundred days will disappear quickly. Once they are gone, as Bill Clinton learned after delaying his push for health care reform, the political capital is hard to get back.

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