Trump’s Hundred Days Are a Disappointment
Kathryn Smith is the author of The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR and the Untold Story of the Partnership that Defined a Presidency” (Touchstone, out in paperback in June).
Alec Baldwin, portraying Donald Trump in a skit on Saturday Night Live, tells his vice president that “it’s hard to believe I’ve been president almost 100 days, and I’ve already done so much. It’s hard to keep track of it all. Read to me again from the list of my accomplishments.” The cast member portraying Mike Pence opens a leather-bound notebook, intones, “Nominated Neil Gorsuch,” and snaps it shut, eliciting shouts of derisive laughter from the audience.
Trump is obsessed with the color gold. But when compared to the gold standard of presidential Hundred Days, his falls far short.
In fact, no president has matched – or likely will ever match – the accomplishments of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the first 100 days of his first term. For one thing, FDR came into office at a time of economic crisis the likes of which the country had never seen—nor has seen since.
The banking system was going over a cliff, with 5,500 banks permanently shuttered and bank “holidays” declared in states from New York to California. Unemployment was at 25 percent. Tens of thousands of men and women were traveling the country in boxcars as hoboes. Others, including families with children, had congregated in tent cities in vacant lots and public parks—Central Park had a huge one—called Hoovervilles after FDR’s moribund predecessor, Herbert Hoover.
Trump likes to use the word “disaster,” yet he faced nothing remotely like what FDR did when he became president. The current banking system is the soundest it has been in eight years.1 Unemployment is under 5 percent. Homelessness has been falling steadily since 2007.2
In his inaugural address, like Trump’s, FDR promised to put America first. But he also promised “action,” and he used the word repeatedly. After leaving the swearing-in at the capitol, he watched his inaugural parade, but then had his cabinet sworn in and immediately held a meeting rather than attending the inaugural ball with his wife and family. He went to bed after 1 a.m., and the breakneck pace continued the next day, with another cabinet meeting and notification of House and Senate leaders that Congress would be reconvened the following Thursday, March 9. (He was inaugurated on March 4, 1933 – the last inauguration held in March before the change to January mandated by the 20th Amendment.)
The congressional session that followed was one for the record books, with 15 separate, major pieces of legislation passed between March 9 and June 16. These included the Emergency Banking Act, approved by both houses of Congress on March 9 and signed by FDR at 8:30 that night; and laws addressing the budget, the securities market, the mortgage crisis, railroads, and the agricultural sector. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which revitalized a lagging area of the South, the Civilian Conservation Corps, which sent a “tree army” of unemployed young men into the national forests, and an emergency federal relief act to feed and clothe the destitute, were all signed into law. So was a bill making it legal to drink beer and wine for the first time in 13 years.
How did he bend Congress to his will? The severity of the economic crisis was a big enabler; even Republicans were eager to do something. But FDR had surfed into office on a tremendous popular mandate. He carried 42 of the 48 states and received 472 of the electoral votes to Hoover’s 59. Both houses of Congress swung heavily in the Democrats’ favor, though it was an unruly coalition that FDR would find difficult to maintain. Trump, by contrast, lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton—something that still rankles—and has a much smaller majority in both houses of Congress. He does share something with FDR though: an unruly coalition within his own party.
Handling of the media and communicating with the public set the two men very far apart. Trump loves to bypass the media, which he regularly insults, by tweeting. FDR did the same thing by giving radio speeches. In his first 100 days, FDR gave numerous addresses, including his first two “fireside chats,” intimate talks with his “friends” that brought his pleasant tenor voice into the homes of millions of Americans. (Comic actor Will Rogers cracked that he explained the bank crisis so simply that even a banker could understand it.)
Also in contrast to Trump, his early press relations were outstanding: FDR held 30 press conferences in the Oval Office, attended three press dinners and hosted 483 “newspaper people” at a White House reception. (You can see a detailed list of his activities here.) The press was almost wholly won over. Wrote Tennessee newspaper publisher George Fort Milton of the Hundred Days, “The change is very much as if some Aladdin has rubbed a magic lamp and summoned his genie to repair the wreckage left by inaction and drift.”
FDR can’t match Trump’s record for visits from foreign dignitaries in this era of jet travel, but he hosted the prime minister of England for six days and the prime minister of Canada for three, and met with numerous foreign envoys, ambassadors and delegations at the White House.
Unlike Trump, who has jetted off to his resort at Mar-a-Lago most weekends of his presidency, President Roosevelt stayed close to home. He went out to the theater twice and enjoyed a couple of movies in the White House. As the weather improved, he took half a dozen day-long and weekend trips on the presidential yacht, the USS Sequoia. Like Trump, he mixed business with pleasure by including dignitaries, his aides and members of Congress so business could be done along with fishing.
The accomplishments of the Hundred Days and the New Deal didn’t all stand up in court or end the Great Depression, but the American voters liked what they saw. In 1936 FDR and his party were returned to office with even greater margins.
So where does this leave Mr. Trump? Without a monumental national crisis, a pliant Congress, a wide base of popular support, or, it appears, any guiding philosophy or ideas other than to build a wall on the Mexican border, Mr. Trump’s second and third 100 days may be as lackluster as his first. And there are three more things he’s lacking that helped FDR: a marvelous smile, an agile mind and a “first-class temperament.” Trump’s perpetually grumpy countenance, willful ignorance and explosive temper are his hallmarks, and Alec Baldwin is having a field day lampooning them.
He's got a long way to go to strike gold.
1 According to the FDIC, there were 140 bank failures in 2009 and 157 in 2010. There were three in 2016.
2 “The State of Homelessness in America, 2016,” report of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, says the incidence of homelessness has been falling in all categories, most notably among veterans.