For the 43rd President, it's ready, set, govern

It may be a myth that a President must make significant accomplishments in his first 100 days to be successful, but that doesn't change the fact that George W. Bush is under pressure to get off to a quick start.

In only a few decades, we have managed to thoroughly explode most of the myths of the presidency. Today, no detail of the political process stays hidden, and any high-minded justification for action from the White House is usually ignored. When a President delivers a stirring address, credit is immediately given to the lowly assistant (or committee of assistants) who wrote it. If the President visits a nursing home, we are reminded that it is all a ploy to boost Social Security reform. Everything, from the tawdry realities of fund raising to the President's underwear preference (and even more intimate preferences), is a subject for Sunday-morning discussion. But there is one myth of the presidency that has endured: the First 100 Days. On the one hand, it asserts that a President has a unique opportunity to get things done, an opportunity that quickly recedes after May 1. On the other hand, it says that a President who squanders these weeks through indecision or bad judgment greatly harms his chances for a successful four years and re-election. The historical record challenges both sides of the myth. Most modern Presidents have had lackluster starts, survived them, and been judged largely on later achievements. Those with successful starts often benefited from special circumstances. For the rest, rushing to wring results out of the first 100 days has often backfired. It has never been practical to expect legislative closure on important issues in the roughly 30 legislative days that will pass in a President's first three months. No other President has confronted the kind of crisis that Franklin D. Roosevelt faced in 1933, when his whirlwind of legislating popularized the notion of 100 days. "It has never made any sense to compare any other situation to the one [Roosevelt] faced, thank goodness," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. But the myth endures. Since Nov. 7, more than 200 reports in newspapers, magazines, and on television have cited George W. Bush's crucial first 100 days. This after the Bush campaign itself has called for a different standard: 180 days. During the campaign, President Bush said that as a guide to his own early days in office, he would use Ronald Reagan's example of seeking quick action on major legislation. There is a sense that Bush should take advantage of whatever honeymoon he has with the public to push his platform forward. His advisers even hope that the relative lack of legislative activity during the 106th Congress will have made lawmakers just as eager as the new President to see bills passed and to break the gridlock that has gripped Capitol Hill in the past few years. "Historically, the greatest opportunities and the maximum advantage and leverage that a President has are in the first days of his presidency," said Bush media strategist Mark McKinnon. "The President and his team are fully cognizant of that. That's why I think you'll see a lot of activity." But even the optimists in Bush's camp believe that a 100-day model might be an impractical standard, because of the close partisan divisions in Congress and the 35-day delay in beginning the presidential transition. "I mean, there's a lot to be said for plans, timetables that are more realistic--180 days, for example," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. In fact, Bush aides are quick to note that 180 days was the time Reagan needed to get the Democratic-controlled House to pass his venturesome tax cut proposal. Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, has taken the lead in drawing up a 180-day timetable to help guide the rollout of Bush's legislative agenda. Most political types blame the press for perpetuating the 100-days myth, but Presidents have also eagerly embraced the idea, even in private. David Gergen recalls that the Reagan transition in 1980 commissioned a history of Presidents' first 100 days and used it to plot a confidential 100-day strategy. George W. Bush is probably the first President to explicitly question the idea. Hess, who worked in the Nixon White House, recalls firing off a memo to his superiors during the 1968 transition advising them to avoid a 100-day approach. "The idea went nowhere because the press and everyone else believes in it, and Presidents believe in it," he said. The actual origin of the 100 days predates Roosevelt by more than a century. Presidential historian Richard Neustadt relates the story in "Report to the President-Elect," by the Center for the Study of the Presidency. Journalists in 1933 searched through history to find an eventful era they could compare to the early Roosevelt administration. They settled on Napoleon Bonaparte's return to power in 1815, after his first abdication. Napoleon rallied the army, recaptured Paris, got thrashed at Waterloo, and was exiled to live out his days on a rock in the South Atlantic, all within 100 days. Dramatic, but not an experience to be imitated. The Real Lesson

Ironically, the Napoleonic 100 days might be a better guide to what most historians and political experts believe is the real lesson of past 100-day periods: Don't believe in the myth so much that you ignore the reality of what you face as President. Hubris, in other words, is a greater danger to new leaders than caution. The 100-day window "is an overrated, artificial concept," said Paul Light, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "[Brookings] just completed a list of the greatest 50 achievements of government of the last 50 years, and virtually none of them were achieved in the first 100 days." Light said that two powerful facts influence new Presidents: First, the early months of a presidency are usually a time of higher approval ratings and better treatment by Congress. At the same time, a new President is more likely to blunder, because of his inexperience, than at any other time during his presidency. Light says the risk of inexperience always outweighs the potential benefits of seizing the moment. "There is a use-it-or-lose-it mentality, and it leads to egregious policy mistakes," he said. An eager John F. Kennedy assumed the CIA and the Pentagon were working together to adequately assess the risks of sponsoring an invasion of Cuba, but his knowledge was imperfect, and the Bay of Pigs debacle dominated Kennedy's first 100 days. Likewise, Bill Clinton was surprised by the explosive reaction to his plan to end the ban on gays in the military, and that miscue came to represent the chaos of his first 100 days. Jimmy Carter sowed resentment by assuming he had the support of a Congress controlled by his party, and he disastrously overloaded the legislative circuits in early 1977. It is no coincidence that those Presidents whom most think of as having had successful 100-day starts came into office in times of crisis. Lyndon B. Johnson was suddenly thrust into the Oval Office after an act he called "the foulest deed of our time." He used a speech five days after the assassination to demand action on two stalled Kennedy initiatives--a tax cut bill and civil rights legislation--and he won on those issues by linking them, at that emotional moment, to the martyred leader. Ronald Reagan was greeted by the worst economy since the Great Depression. Neither Reagan nor Johnson faced the array of problems that Roosevelt did, but the sense of crisis encouraged them to act boldly, and they persuaded Congress to cooperate. If Johnson and Reagan had the best 100-day beginnings of Presidents since Roosevelt, the special circumstances that each faced deserve some credit. Johnson was a canny pol who knew that the grieving nation would rally behind his call for action. Reagan always understood the boost he got from his brush with death after he was shot by John Hinckley on March 30, day 70 of his presidency. Years later, when things were not going well, Reagan suggested to an aide that he should get shot again. Often, the mistakes of the first 100 days--and their true costs--are not evident immediately. Historians generally credit Reagan with a successful first 100 days. On Feb. 18, Reagan had delivered a speech on his economic agenda and, after a delay for his recuperation, it was passed in a series of votes that lasted until June. At the time, his tax cut and defense spending increase were considered a 100-days success, but hindsight shows they were flawed. Reagan ignored the warnings of his budget director and ushered in more than a decade of deficits that harmed the U.S. economy and crippled the presidency of his successor. The central achievement of Reagan's first 100 days--convincing most Americans that he was a brave, unflappable leader--had more to do with his being shot than with any bill or decree. And the legislative effort that received the most focus in his first 100 days turned out to be--with the possible exception of the Iran-Contra scandal--the blackest mark on his presidency. Perhaps the greatest victim of the unforeseen consequences of 100-day efforts was a man who never even became President. Newt Gingrich is among those who think the 100-days concept often entices leaders into overreaching. "I believe Clinton set the stage for [his party's election defeat in] 1994 by rushing in and trying to do too much too fast," said the former House Speaker. When Republicans took over Congress following the 1994 elections, Gingrich spoke of decreasing the size and reach of the federal government, making the President less relevant, and asserting a larger role for Congress. He ignored the prerogatives of the Senate; vastly underestimated the President's power to battle back; and misread the GOP's large majority as a mandate for radical reform, rather than a protest against Democratic rule. In framing his first 100 days as Speaker, he sowed the seeds of the Republican revolution's failure, and of his own demise. Gingrich, naturally, sees his first 100 days in wholly positive terms and argues that he had a great advantage that Clinton in 1993 lacked--a mandate. "We campaigned on the Contract With America, and we got a 53-seat majority," he said. "We had legitimacy." Clinton in 1993, by contrast, had gotten 43 percent of the popular vote and failed to gain any Democratic seats in the House or Senate. Presidents who misread the size of their mandates, as Clinton did in 1993, risk overreaching during the first 100 days, Gingrich said. This was a precept that George H.W. Bush knew well, according to Gingrich. "I was with the President when he was told that he had a 92 percent approval rating," he said. "His reaction was, `Oh, well, it's only down from here.' He understood that a good 100 days only means that now you need another good 100 days." Considering the circumstances of the 2000 election, this is a lesson that George W. Bush is not likely to ignore. The Bush Plan

"I'm sure there's going to be a lot of activity, but he's not going to have the normal honeymoon," said a Bush political adviser. "A lot of Democrats in Congress who are going to be passing judgment view this election as essentially a tie. It's not like he got a mandate, so it will be tougher." Republican pollster Robert M. Teeter, a longtime Bush family political adviser and a close friend of Vice President Dick Cheney, said that the new President would be wise to start off with issues on which there is a better chance for bipartisan agreement. "You don't take on stuff that you don't think the Democrats are going to go for and lead with it," Teeter said. And with Democrats and some of their interest-group allies taking a harder line on the confirmation of some of Bush's Cabinet nominees, some Republicans think that Bush might not be as quick or sweeping in signing executive orders to roll back some Clinton-era regulations. "Bush picks his fights carefully, and he won't go out of his way to antagonize Democrats," said a Bush ally. Although the details of his legislative plan are closely held, Bush's advisers say that his early objectives are likely to be the same ones he enunciated during the campaign. And the way he is using the transition period also offers a few clues. For instance, the first major session that Bush had with conservative and centrist Democratic members of Congress was held at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in December to discuss education policy. Bush said that there was "a lot of agreement" at the gathering, and that "there is no better place to start to show that our Congress and the President can cooperate for the best of the country than education." The President campaigned on giving more flexibility to states in using federal education aid-including, under some circumstances, vouchers-while raising accountability standards. He has also advocated spending more money to improve literacy among preschool children in Head Start programs. Although vouchers remain controversial for many Democrats and some Republicans, his other proposals have bipartisan support. And because the 106th Congress failed to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act last year, education could be an attractive issue on which Congress and the new Administration could set a cooperative tone. Bush said education reform would be the first initiative he sent to Congress, and in recruiting Houston schools chief Roderick R. Paige to be his Education Secretary, he nominated someone who backed vouchers but would not be opposed by the National Education Association teachers union. Still, some in the Bush camp are cautious about predicting popularity for his education plan. "Education reform gets you into bitter opposition from some elements of the Democratic coalition," said one Bush strategist. "To really do reform, you have to do some things the teachers union is adamantly opposed to." Bush also held an early meeting with corporate CEOs that allowed him to again pitch his campaign proposal for across-the-board tax reductions. Some Republican congressional leaders have called for voting on Bush's tax package in pieces, starting with popular proposals such as reducing the "marriage penalty" and estate taxes. Bush hasn't rejected their advice, but he hasn't embraced it, either. "He is wedded to that tax cut," one adviser said. Unreasonable Expectations

Neustadt, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, writes that no President can reasonably hope to meet the popular expectations for 100-day success, and he cites three reasons:

  • The 20th Amendment. It's hard to believe, but until Franklin Roosevelt's time, a new President had nine months in which to establish his rule before Congress met in regular session. The President could call special sessions before then for limited purposes, but he controlled the agenda. The 20th Amendment established that Congress would convene three weeks before Inauguration Day. Although this is supposed to prepare Congress for quick action on the President's agenda, Neustadt argues that if one or two chambers are controlled by the opposition, it usually gives that party time to gird for battle.
  • Competition from Congress. Whatever party is in control, Congress is "institutionally suspicious of `downtown' [the executive branch]; competitive with White House control of federal agencies, their programs, and their budgets; and licensed by the Constitution to compete," says Neustadt. Honeymoons are forced on Congress by public opinion, and they disappear as soon as opinion shifts, he argues. "So honeymoons are marginal, at best, in deciding a new President's success with legislation."
  • Ignorance. Neustadt says that lack of experience is a formidable obstacle. "If he has not already held high executive office ... the President will be ignorant of many things he needs to know, yet can learn only by experience all through the 100 days, and for months after. So those early months are exceptionally hazardous, as well as marginally advantageous." Neustadt recalls that without the experience to know how it might be amplified (and distorted) by the press, the Carter White House sought to conceal some questionable financial dealings by Budget Director Bert Lance, and thus brought on a scandal.

In the face of such overwhelming evidence, why is the 100-days myth so durable? Most people blame the press. "It is one of those hoary old journalistic devices that has very little meaning," said Ed Fouhy, who has served as Washington bureau chief for most of the television networks. But the press reflects an attraction to this idea that runs deeper in the population. "We have a perennial need to compartmentalize," Gingrich said. "It is easier to think that way. We know that preseason football tells us nothing about the regular season, but we watch it anyway." Stephen Hess and most other political experts say the press forces Presidents to hew to the 100-days myth; Fouhy says it is the other way around. Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief, says the 100-days concept keeps the press from delivering a premature judgment on a new Administration, which the 24/7 news culture demands. "I mean, the guy hasn't been sworn in yet, and people are already asking how he's doing. I think most of us use it to hold off the demand to deliver the report card too early." Hess said that the public, the press, or the politicians will always insist on some arbitrary standard by which to measure a new President, and he seconded Bush's suggestion of a 180-day period. Light said that any such deadline makes no sense, because the basic goals of government have changed so much since the 1930s. "The country had big problems then that needed solving, and 100 days was a useful concept to get things moving," Light said. Since the 1960s, though, "government has been about fine-tuning," he said. "We've exhausted the need for that dramatic stuff." Thus, Bill Clinton's grandiose health care plan never had a chance, yet his bite-size steps, such as extending insurance coverage to poor children, have produced steady progress. "We're much more likely to get to national health care through this incremental approach," Light said. And we're more likely to judge our Presidents fairly when we abandon the myth of the first 100 days.