David Greenberg: The Folly of the 'Hundred Days'

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University, is the author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image."]

So great were the hopes for the launch of John F. Kennedy's presidency that even before his inauguration, the president-elect was griping about the pressure he felt to work magic. "I'm sick and tired of reading how we're planning another 'hundred days' of miracles," Kennedy complained to his chief aide, Ted Sorensen, as they composed the inaugural address. "Let's put in that this won't all be finished in a hundred days or a thousand."

JFK knew that the hundred-day yardstick for measuring presidential progress was as misleading as it is ubiquitous. The roundness of the number, though aesthetically seductive, is arbitrary; and while the short time span suggests swift, purposeful action, it really means that newcomers to the office will usually be too green to demonstrate true mastery.

Knowing this, Kennedy and Sorensen inserted into his speech its famous "thousand days" line. For good measure, they added an even bigger caveat, warning that the new administration probably wouldn't meet its goals "even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet." Talk about lowering the bar!

And yet if Kennedy hoped to lessen expectations for his first hundred days, he failed. By April, the hype continued apace. Sorensen was dispatched to draft a memo showing how Kennedy's accomplishments stacked up favorably next to those of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.

Given the crises that Barack Obama faces, he might do well to lower the bar himself. With April 30 looming, he has managed, to his credit, to pass a stimulus bill (albeit through rougher waters than he hoped), roll out a banking-crisis fix (with fewer details than Wall Street hoped) and propose a mortgage solution (with less money than everyone hoped). He's signed a few ballpoint-ready Democratic bills like the State Children's Health Insurance Program and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and issued executive orders closing the Guantanamo Bay prison and overturning the anti-abortion "gag rule" for family-planning centers overseas.

A lot of people are still expecting more. In his speech before Congress last month, Obama promised initiatives to tap new sources of domestic energy, contain global warming, invest in education and toughen financial regulations -- not to mention the rather large matter of health-care reform. The hundred days is surely, as historian Arthur Schlesinger once said, a "trap."...

The main reason that the hundred days are an unreliable indicator of future performance is the same reason we watch them so closely: They constitute the period in which the public is just getting to know the new president, and in which the president is just getting to know his new job. New presidents tend to be clueless about governing. Even running a large state can't prepare them for the responsibilities, attention or demands to act quickly -- just as they need to find their footing. (FDR's term hardly defined his legacy; many of his greatest achievements came later.) Sizing up presidents based on their hundred days is like judging a rookie from his first cuts in spring training.

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