How Trump’s first 100 days compares to past presidencies

tags: Trump, 100 days

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on President Trump’s first 100 days, and how he compares to his predecessors, I am joined by Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, and presidential historian and NewsHour regular Michael Beschloss.

And we welcome both of you to the program.

Michael, I’m going to start with you.

First, remind us quickly, where did this 100-day standard come from?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: It came from Franklin Roosevelt. He had 100 days that started a couple days after — a few days after he was inaugurated.

And he was trying to deal with the Great Depression and had this amazing success with Congress, getting all this legislation, fixing the banks, trying to relieve the poor, Tennessee Valley Authority, Public Works, a kind of legislative record that we probably will not see again.

And every president since then has hated it, because they’re measured against this almost-unreal standard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Barbara Perry, here we are, almost 100 days in for President Trump. How does he compare to his predecessors at this point?

BARBARA PERRY, University of Virginia Miller Center: Depends on what you want to compare him on.

So, if you want to look at, let’s say, executive orders, certainly, in terms of the numbers, he would be right up there in the categories of most presidents.

But, as Michael said, in reference to legislation, I think FDR passed 76 laws in the first 100 days through a very amenable Congress. Obviously, Trump is not going to come anywhere near that record, and probably no other president will either.

But I would say, certainly on executive orders, on the Supreme Court appointment of Neil Gorsuch, he gets A’s in terms of getting what he wanted based on some of the promises that he made during the campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, how do you see him compared to others?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think I would say it a little differently, because Trump made such a point before the campaign just before the election, saying, elect me. This is a referendum on my 100-day action plan. I will get all these things through Congress with a Republican Congress, which he has had.

And, in retrospect, as you do say, this has been 100 days with almost nothing of great importance, despite the fact that he had promised health care reform and big tax reform, which he’s getting to this week and a number of other things, border wall.

So, if you’re looking at the 100 days largely as a legislative standard — and that is what is usually is in history — Trump is really pretty low down on the list.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Barbara, Michael referenced where this 100-day standard comes from, but how often do presidents get a lot done early on in their administration?

BARBARA PERRY: It depends on the president, of course.

If you look at someone like Lyndon Johnson, who had, of course, two first days — first 100 days, one after the Kennedy assassination, and then being elected in his own right, but particularly after the 1964 election, in 1965, as he moved forward with the Great Society, Medicare and Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, so we will point to a president like that.

Again, no one will ever again standard of FDR in legislation. I also look out where they come out in the first 100 days on approval ratings, which is a fascinating parlor game to play. We know this president coming in, of course, came in with the lowest entering approval rating of any president.

But it also doesn’t matter necessarily if you make a mistake, because the person with the highest rating after 100 days is John F. Kennedy, after the Bay of Pigs. But the way he handled that issue by going before the American people and saying, I’m responsible for this, I’m the responsible officer of the government, caused his approval ratings to spike even further.

So he comes in with an 83 percent rating. We know Trump’s approval ratings is down in the low 40s at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dig a little deeper there, Michael, in terms of how Donald Trump has done compared to other presidents. You started to talk about this a moment ago with the setting of the standard. But how does he stack up?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, a lot of this, you know, what presidents do, above and beyond their congressional record, is, do they expand the base that they had on Election Day?

Donald Trump, you know, got, what, 47 percent of the popular vote. Now he is down to about 40, which would suggest that, if anything, he’s alienated some of the people who voted for him.

Usually, with presidents you see — and this is true of almost every president back to FDR — the opposite. They get elected, they say, I need people who didn’t vote for me, who are skeptical of me. I’m going to reach out to them. I’m the president of all the people.

And you see the numbers go up because people appreciate the fact that they are reaching out. That is the one thing Donald Trump — and this has been his own choice — has not done. He’s essentially said, I’m happy with my base. I will play to them. I am not going to make a big effort to reach out to Democrats and independents in Congress or out among the American people.

And I think the numbers show that he’s paid for that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other feature of this presidency has been his unusual attacks, if you will, Barbara, on the judiciary. Time and again, he has singled out the courts, judges, justices when he didn’t like what they ruled.

BARBARA PERRY: He has, which is a little odd, in the sense that his sister is a federal judge, and a circuit judge at that.

But he is following in the footsteps of some other presidents, and we can point directly to FDR, for example, who took on the judiciary headlong, not necessarily even in the first term, but certainly once he was reelected by a landslide in ’36, and famously, or infamously, tried to pack the court.

But I always go back to a speech that he gave in which he said, the two branches of government, president and Congress, are pulling a wagon. There are two horses pulling in the same direction, and the court, particularly the Supreme Court, which kept striking down his many pieces of New Deal legislation, is pulling in the opposite direction.

That was a metaphor that the American people could understand. But they never supported in the main or for the majority his court-packing plan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it’s not so unusual, Michael. But it is — there has been a frequency we haven’t seen.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think that’s right.

And Reagan talked about unelected judges. But in Trump’s case, you have had — and this is historically unusual — two big executive orders within these first 100 days, including most recently sanctuary cities, and earlier on the travel ban.

Each time, he would say, almost in anger, this was something that an unelected judge did, or something that a so-called judge did. And it’s sort of the opposite of conservatism, because one of the things that is most fundamental in being a conservative is having respect for the democratic institutions that we think are important.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s talk, finally, Barbara, about what the first 100 days tells us about the rest of a presidency. To what extent can we look at Donald Trump’s first few months in office and say this forecasts whether he’s going to be successful or not?

BARBARA PERRY: Well, I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, originally, and we’re about to do the Kentucky Derby, so I say a horse can stumble out of the gate or it can be running last in the first third …


BARBARA PERRY: … and still come on to win.

So, to the point about low approval ratings and Michael’s point about not necessarily accomplishing all of the list of things he said he would do in the 100 days doesn’t mean that he won’t be reelected or that he will have a failed presidency.

And if you think of someone like Bill Clinton, who had a rather chaotic start in a host of ways in those first 100 days, and even up to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and people were saying, oh, it’s the shrinking presidency and the shrinking Bill Clinton as president, and yet he came on strong. And we know that he was reelected in ’96.

So, it’s not a Ouija board. And, as a professor, I would say to the students in the first third of the semester, if they scored lower than they wanted on the first test, I would say, you have more tests to do, you have a term paper, participate in class.

So, Trump still has many more things on which to be graded.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see this first …


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I totally agree with that.

And that is that it’s a standard that historically doesn’t tell us a lot, because think of all these presidents and what turns out to be important about their administration, these moments like Kennedy and the missile crisis, or Johnson and the Vietnam escalation, or George W. Bush and 9/11.

None of those things happened in the first — during the first 100 days. So, if we were having a great conversation like this 100 days into each of those presidencies, we wouldn’t have been able to predict what historians now think was really turning out to be pivotal.

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