The 100-Day Benchmark: It All Started with Napoleon

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The 100-day timeline can be traced back to Napoleon Bonaparte, because that's how long it took him to return from exile, reinstate himself as ruler of France and wage war against the English and Prussian armies before his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. (It actually took 111 days, but we'll give him a mulligan.) Napoleon reclaimed power in 1815, however; Americans didn't start assessing their Presidents in 100-day increments until Franklin Delano Roosevelt came along more than a century later.

Roosevelt was a presidential overachiever — and his swift, take-charge method of governing was exactly what an ailing, Depression-weary nation needed in 1933. After delivering one of the most famous Inaugural speeches in presidential history — does the phrase "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" sound familiar? — Roosevelt had been in office barely 24 hours when he declared a four-day bank holiday and drafted the Emergency Banking Act, which helped calm a financial panic that was quickly spiraling out of control. By the time he hit the 100-day mark, Roosevelt had instituted the "fireside chat" tradition, called Congress into a three-month-long special session and passed 15 pieces of major legislation — the beginning of what would come to be known as the New Deal — which created everything from the Tennessee Valley Authority to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. With farm credits, federal works projects and new financial regulations in place, the U.S. of June 1933 was a substantially different place from that of 100 days earlier. (See a special report on Obama's first 100 days.)

Roosevelt was enormously popular (hence the fourth term), and later administrations have tried to associate themselves with his early success. "Jerk out every damn little bill you can," President Lyndon Johnson reportedly commanded his strategist Larry O'Brien in 1965. "Put out that propaganda ... that [we've] done more than they did in Roosevelt's hundred days." Propaganda or not, Johnson actually had a very effective 100-day run: after being sworn in as Kennedy's sudden and unexpected successor, he advanced the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, established the Warren Commission to investigate J.F.K.'s assassination and got into a political fight with Fidel Castro over the water supply at Guantánamo Bay.

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