Skip to content
Breaking News Alert Marred By Lobbying Conflicts, Georgia Election Board Member Resigns

Our 100-Day Obsession Only Makes The Presidency More Powerful


Back when Barack Obama was still president, the Right condemned his endless onslaught of executive orders at every turn. Many conservatives lambasted the lack of constitutionality and rampant misuse of executive power his actions represented. Donald Trump himself rebuked Obama for his strident use of executive orders.

The New York Times noted that Obama “sought to reshape the nation with a sweeping assertion of executive authority and a canon of regulations that have inserted the United States government more deeply into American life.” They add, “he created the kind of government neither he nor the Republicans wanted — one that depended on bureaucratic bulldozing rather than legislative transparency. But once Mr. Obama got the taste for it, he pursued his executive power without apology, and in ways that will shape the presidency for decades to come.”

It seems the Times was right. Despite his protests in the past, Trump has actually signed more executive orders in his first 100 days than Obama did in his.

Trump Embraces Executive Power, Just Like Obama

Jeva Lange has the numbers over at The Week: President Trump has, thus far, passed 28 laws and written 24 executive orders. (He’ll have written 32 by Friday.) Back in 2009, at this point in his time in office, Barack Obama had passed 11 laws and signed 19 executive orders.

It seems that, for all his condemnations of Obama’s energetic presidency, Trump feels pressured to be just as energetic, or more so, in the first 100 days of his own. On the one hand, Trump has called the 100-day measure a “ridiculous standard.” On the other hand, he’s reportedly demonstrated a concerning obsession with this mile marker, pushing Congress to pass the American Health Care Act (AHCA)—regardless of whether it’s a truly well-thought-out plan—and to get funding for his promised border wall.

Both of these items hearken back to a pledge Trump drafted back before Election Day 2016, one that offered a series of measures to fight corruption, tighten immigration law, and repeal Obamacare (among others).

Why Is The 100-Day Mark So Important To Everyone?

But why emphasize quantity of action over quality? Today’s political climate prizes dynamism over patience, energy over prudence. That may help us see measurable, tangible restructurings early on in a president’s career, but it also pressures these leaders into brash action over thoughtful deliberation.

According to Time magazine, the “100 day” measure actually started with the dictatorial Napoleon Bonaparte. Claire Suddath has the details:

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.

Of course, Napoleon wasn’t the most democratic personality. Why would we want to measure our presidents against a standard he started?

And then there are FDR’s first 100 days in office, the other standard-bearer for this presidential marker:

Ever since President Franklin Roosevelt pushed through Congress a historic legislative agenda in the early part of his term, the 100-day mark has been a standard part of the political lexicon. … Once FDR set the bar, it became difficult not to make this comparison. For journalists the 100 day-mark is a nice, clean, and simple way to measure how things are going, while politicians look for ways to gauge the strength of the commander in chief. In our current culture of quick, instant satisfaction, we want presidents to deliver on promises right away—and we have little patience for waiting.

If we’re making Roosevelt our executive example, we will require our presidents to increasingly expand the powers of the executive, eschewing the checks and balances supposedly instituted by Congress and the judicial branch to reform and renew the government via his own powers, alone. Maybe that’s what Trump wants to do. But that isn’t very conservative — or good for America.

The 100-Day Marker Doesn’t Tell Much About a President

What’s more, it isn’t very practical, as The Atlantic notes. Actual reform and change takes a while to percolate. Whatever Trump institutes in these first 100 days, we won’t see the repercussions until much further down the road:

Some presidents who get off to a strong start, like Jimmy Carter, go on to struggle during the remainder of their terms. Others, like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, have tough early months, but then go on to serve two terms and end their term with strong approval ratings. Some of the biggest presidential achievements, like President Richard Nixon’s trip to China or President Obama’s health-care reform, come long after the 100 days are over.

Also, if you believe that ideas (and executive actions) can have unintended consequences (just as FDR’s did), then you’d believe that four good, thoughtful actions by the president in his first 100 days are 100 times better than 24 hasty ones.

“Putting too much pressure on success in the first 100 days creates incentives for quick, and sometimes hasty, action,” notes Julian Zelizer. “Great legislation can take time to produce.”

Dan McLaughlin noted this in an article for National Review last week, cautioning Republicans against trying to institute a comprehensive health-care bill that will rival the enormity and complexity of Obamacare.

“A major reason Americans rebelled against Obamacare from the very beginning was its combination of ambition, novelty, and complexity,” he writes. “Most Americans understood only a fraction of how the law was supposed to work, but they knew that it was a thousand-plus-page paper blob designed to affect the health care of every American, creating lots of new rules and bureaucracy, spending colossal amounts of money, and launching us into uncharted waters.”

Passing the AHCA imprudently would threaten the same frustrations, complexities, and financial obligations. We needn’t do that twice.

The More Energetic a President, the Less Conservative

Since his first days running for office, Trump has pursued a messianic tack in his political messaging that is much more progressive than it is conservative. He’s promised to—singlehandedly—“make America great again.” That makes him the political heir of an Andrew Jackson or FDR, but not a George Washington or Calvin Coolidge.

Practically speaking, Trump is historically a man of business, a man of action. So it makes sense that he wants to change things, drain the swamp, fix America for the poor and working-class. But without an understanding of the constraints of his office and why they matter, Trump becomes little more than a progressive president in Republican clothing.