Introduction

Have you seen a presidential candidate give a speech before? Usually, hopeful politicians use a variety of strategies to make their speeches compelling to a broad public audience, including laying out what they hope to do once in office. They’ll usually describe what they’ll do in the beginning of their term, specifically, their “first 100 days.”

Background

Mentioning the first 100 days is a catchy way to talk about a president’s early goals for their time in office, and we tend to hear it more and more as a new presidential administration prepares to be sworn into office. But what exactly is so important about it?

First 100 Days

The first 100 days refer to the beginning of a new presidential administration, serving as a benchmark or a deadline for achieving specific policy goals. Presidential candidates love to prioritize their policy agenda by setting a to-do list for their first 100 days in office, and this period typically sets the tone for the entire presidency. 

How It Works

It may seem strange to focus on a relatively short increment that doesn’t align with how we normally measure time in months and years. In the span of an eight-year administration, 100 days only make up about 3% of a two-term president’s time in office. While an arbitrary benchmark, the first 100 days hold symbolic meaning for politicians hoping to construct a narrative of success around their term. 

As with many commonly held ideas in politics, the true power of the first 100 days comes from the way the concept is used as a rhetorical device to shape public opinion. Presidents with highly productive 100 days are seen as better able to get things done, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Likewise, presidents are often seen to have the most political capital, or leverage, at the beginning of their term. Therefore, presidents are more likely to push for key legislation right after inauguration since that’s when such changes have the highest chance of being implemented. This, in turn, makes the first 100 days all the more critical. 

The History

The concept of using the first 100 days of a new presidential term to quantify the administration’s achievements wasn’t always a popular idea in the United States. The term wasn’t actually used by an American politician until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on July 24th, 1933, during one of his famous “fireside chats,” or radio addresses that were broadcast to the nation. He had started implementing his unprecedented New Deal programs to address the struggles of the Great Depression, and he established this time period as the benchmark for measuring a president’s ability to enact their policies. FDR still holds the record for the most laws passed in the first 100 days, with a total of 76. Modern presidents have been significantly less successful in this regard.

Why Care?

Although quantifying the president’s successes in this way may seem superficial or irrelevant, it is still important to understand why the concept has become a political reality and the value it has in holding our leaders accountable. As long as our media continues to adopt and disseminate rhetorical concepts like the first 100 days, such concepts will shape the political narrative and help individuals form their own opinions on government. But they can also be used to ensure presidential accountability. By publicly setting an agenda for their first 100 days on the campaign trail, presidential candidates give us a useful framework for assessing whether or not they have fulfilled their promises. This can be important for directing our attention to areas in which leaders have failed and creating public pressure to remind them of their responsibilities to their people. While we should never take socially constructed frameworks like the first 100 days as fixed or unchangeable, we can also use them to better connect our interests with our government. This is what democracy is.

    Learn More

    1. Pruitt, Sarah. “Fast Facts on the ‘First 100 Days.’” History.com, 22 Aug 2018, https://www.history.com/news/fast-facts-on-the-first-100-days.
    2. Robinson, Tony. The New Administration’s First 100 Days Workbook. Longman, 2008.
    3. Cohen, Adam. Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America. Penguin Books, 2010. 

    Think Further

    1. Why else might using the first 100 days as a benchmark be valuable to us? Why might it limit our assessment of a president’s administration? 
    2. Should a president’s early success in office be measured at all? Why or why not?
    3. What metric do you think should be used to define a president’s success in office?

    Teacher Resources

    Download Lesson Plan
    Download Worksheet
    View On EdPuzzle
    Sign up for our educators newsletter to learn about new content!
    Educators Newsletter