Like pregnancy, presidency is supposed to bring the most change in the first three and a half months. What a president accomplishes in the inaugural 100 days is considered to reflect his character and predict his success. Presidents are expected to give a speech on this milestone day, which has become the subject of columns, oral histories, books and, for Barack Obama, even a collection of 100 poems.
However, the public obsession with this time period was conceived through an arbitrary event in 19th century France, and with judgement day upon Donald Trump on April 29, the public pressure for rapid change can be dangerous. “Presidents should really be judged after a year,” says Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, “but we are very impatient people, and no one wants to wait a year for an assessment.” While the public wants to see immediate moving-and-shaking, Farnsworth warns, “that’s also when the president is most inexperienced and most likely to make mistakes.”
READ MORE: Trump’s 100 days: Our five stages of grief
The First 100 phenomenon first appeared in 1815, when Louis XVIII took the throne of France. In a welcoming speech, a politician pointed out that allies of the new king had rallied against Napoleon for exactly 100 days after the man returned from exile. The speaker, who presumably counted the days on a calendar, coined the term, “cent jours.”
A century later, this French coincidence warped into an American fascination with the first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. In the spring of 1933, Roosevelt sprung into cost-cutting measures to soften the Great Depression. He cut veteran pensions, slashed government salaries, established six holidays and explained these measures to the country by recording radio broadcasts at his fireside. He took no vacation until his 106th day, when he traveled by train to his country home in New Brunswick.
Facing the same 100-day standard, President Donald Trump promised immediacy but experienced complications. “Now arrives the hour of action,” he said in his inaugural address on Jan. 20. Struggling families, political corruption—“that all changes, starting right here, and right now.” But rushing to enact a Muslim ban, eradicate Obamacare and close the environmental protection agency, his efforts have become inconsistent and tumultuous. Rachel Zucker, a poet who edited a book of 100 poems to mark Barack Obama’s first 100 days, says that, given the milestone, “I would worry that Trump would feel pressure to deliver on some of his insane promises … and bulldoze those through for his sort of scorekeeping.” She says she could’ve just as well compiled a poetry book after Obama’s first year or half-way through his term. “I think we have ways as human beings of marking time that are somewhat arbitrary, but if we talk about them, they become significant.”
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The 100-day standard has since entered Canada, and the corporate world. Justin Trudeau’s 100-day anniversary was marked by news commentators measuring him up; his government had passed a tax package, withdrawn Canadian fighter jets from Iraq and Syria, and announced plans to welcome Syrian refugees, earning a report card grade of a B+, according to interviewees on CTV. Meanwhile, new CEOs often are subjected to first 100 days-style scrutiny. To help new industry leaders create an “optimal 100 day plan,” a consultancy firm called First 100 Assist operates in New York and London (guaranteeing 100 per cent success).
Globally, leaders across disciplines are subject to the same test, with the exception of monarchs, in which a king or queen’s debut is usually overshadowed by the public mourning the death of his or her predecessor, and in some cases, violence between siblings to inherit power.
Yet leaders do enjoy special get-‘er-done power off the bat. With the momentum of winning an election and public goodwill, Obama’s prolific honeymoon saw him pass an economic stimulus package, introduce new White House transparency rules and sign an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay, while dealing with a stale war in Iraq, not to mention swine flu. He was at peak congressional support, and polls suggested he hovered around 65 per cent public support, which would only decline with time.
But the public demands an impossibly impressive first impression. The U.S. Cabinet takes an average of 263 days to pass bills into laws, according to data from Congress.gov, and while current presidents must spend time in the first weeks making cabinet appointments, Roosevelt was the last president who won in November and wasn’t inaugurated until March, by which point he’d already lined up his staff. Obama didn’t pass his signature healthcare bill until closer to Day 1,000, and he never acted on the Guantanamo order he’d made on Day 10.
Presidents over time have tried to tame the great expectations. In John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, he spoke of creating a new balance of power, a new world of law, and pushing back the “jungle of suspicion.” However, “all of this will not be finished in the first 100 days,” he disclaimed. “Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”