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AU Historians Weigh in on the First 100 Days, Past and Present

From Lincoln to Trump, historians share their opinions on first 100 days

FDR at fireside chat

The first 100 days of a White House administration are often considered a yardstick to measure a new administration's effectiveness in fulfilling its campaign promises. They are also considered a bellwether of a president's success or failure over the next four years. This measurement of a chief executive's accomplishments goes back to the first term of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who entered office during the Great Depression. 


As President Donald J. Trump hits the hundred-day mark, we asked historians in the College of Arts and Sciences to weigh in on what they believe past presidents actually accomplished (or didn't accomplish) during this period. Here, Professor Max Paul Friedman discusses FDR's whirlwind first 100 days; Professor Alan Kraut explains how Abraham Lincoln's plans were nearly subsumed by one of our greatest national crises; and Professor Peter Kuznick analyzes Harry Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan. Finally, Professor Allan Lichtman shares his views on Donald J. Trump in the context of his newly released book The Case for Impeachment. (Opinions expressed are those of the writers.)

 

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
By Professor of History Max Paul Friedman

All US presidents since 1945 have been measured against the arbitrary benchmark set by Franklin D. Roosevelt's whirlwind efforts in his first 100 days in office to tackle the Great Depression. Shepherding 15 major pieces of legislation through Congress, the Roosevelt administration saved the banking system through federally-supervised reorganization, regulated the stock market, and spent tax dollars to support the devastated farm sector.

Faced with unemployment estimated at 25 percent, FDR did not order a freeze on federal hiring, but instead did the opposite. A quarter-million young people employed in the Civilian Conservation Corps built some of the national park infrastructure still in use today. Larger public works programs hired yet more Americans to build roads, bridges, schools, and airports, or to bring electrification and irrigation to impoverished states in the South. Roosevelt saw the federal government as a powerful tool to address the nation's problems, which was proven over the next decade, as yet more ambitious New Deal programs cut the unemployment rate in half, and massive federal spending on World War II—a New Deal on steroids—created full employment.

Upon assuming office, FDR surrounded himself with the most talented public servants available, while reassuring Americans that they had nothing to fear from one another "but fear itself." That calm and confident voice against prejudice and conspiratorial thinking was the most important service President Roosevelt provided immediately after his inauguration. 

 

Abraham Lincoln
By Professor of History Alan Kraut

During their first 100 days, many presidents find their own plans subsumed by national events. President Abraham Lincoln, an adroit Whig politician from Illinois, had his eye on westward expansion as key to American prosperity. He favored a role for the federal government in the nation's economic development and opposed slavery's reaching into states being carved from western territories.

The crisis of the union caused by disputes over slavery and states rights immediately demanded Lincoln's attention. Still, his response was consistent with his opposition to slavery, his veneration of the Union, and his belief in an activist government, including the use of executive power in time of crisis.

Lincoln's crisis began a month after his November 1860 election, when South Carolina seceded from the Union. Six more followed before his March inauguration, four after. On April 12, 1861, Fort Sumter fell to the South Carolina state militia. Lincoln requested that Congress convene, but also used executive authority to quell the insurrection.

He called for 75,000 volunteers for 90 days. He proclaimed a blockade on all Southern ports from Virginia to Texas. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus in states along the railroad line from Philadelphia to Washington. He acted to prevent the secession of border states, including Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. As commander in chief, he ordered the supply and preparation of the military, vainly hoping to prevent further chaos as the nation tumbled into Civil War. 

Perhaps ironically, Lincoln exercised broad executive privilege not to circumvent Congress or to ram through his own agenda, but because he was desperate to save the Union. He feared secession would destroy the world's only democracy and prove that government by the people was not viable. Also ironically, though Lincoln didn't live to see it, the defeat of the South in the Civil War made possible westward expansion as he had envisioned. 

 

Harry Truman
By Professor of History Peter Kuznick

Harry Truman left office with approval ratings so low that only George W. Bush has come close since. But he is now, strangely, remembered as a near-great president. That judgment is bipartisan. In 1999, Condoleezza Rice named him "Man of the Century" for Time magazine.

I profoundly disagree with that judgment. In fact, Truman would be near the bottom of my list. But his first 120 days were certainly momentous.

Truman had been a party functionary—a loyal member of the corrupt Pendergast Machine that ran Kansas City—prior to running for the Senate.  When a reporter asked boss Tom Pendergast why he had chosen Truman to run, Pendergast replied, "I wanted to demonstrate that a well-oiled machine could send an office boy to the senate." Democratic Party bosses gave about as much thought to Truman's qualifications when they chose him to replace the progressive Henry Wallace as vice president on the 1944 ticket. On the eve of the party convention, Gallup asked potential Democratic voters who they wanted as vice president. Sixty-five percent chose Wallace. Two percent preferred Truman. But the bosses controlled the convention and put Truman in over the far more qualified and popular Wallace.

Truman was only in office 82 days before Franklin Roosevelt died. During that time, Roosevelt had only spoken to him twice, about nothing of significance. Nor did anyone else in that administration hold Truman in high regard. In fact, amazingly, no one had even bothered to tell Truman that the US was building the atomic bomb until after he was sworn in.

Once in office, Truman told visitors that the whole thing was a mistake and that he wasn't qualified for the job. He was right. It would only take him 10 days before he had undermined Roosevelt and Wallace's vision for postwar collaboration with the Soviet Union. Roosevelt's last cable to Churchill had explicitly downplayed differences with Russia and urged continued friendship. Truman's meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov on April 23 was a disaster. Truman berated the Soviet diplomat and accused the Soviets of having broken their Yalta agreements. He then bragged to underlings how he had given Molotov "one-two to the jaw." Relations between the two countries would go pretty steadily downhill after that, despite the efforts of Wallace, Stimson, Davies, and others to right the ship and uphold Roosevelt's vision for postwar peace.

Equally calamitous, both morally and militarily, was Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on what his chief of staff Admiral William Leahy referred to as "an already thoroughly defeated Japan." Truman knew the Japanese were desperate to end the war and that the long-sought and now imminent Soviet intervention would do the trick. He also knew that he was beginning a process that could end life on the planet. Seven of America's eight five-star admirals and generals in 1945 have said that the atomic bombs were either morally reprehensible or militarily unnecessary or both.

Whatever good things Truman did as president will always be overshadowed by his role in precipitating the Cold War and his dropping of atomic bombs. The world needed a man of vision in 1945. The challenges were overwhelming. Had Roosevelt lived or Wallace gotten reelected and taken office, there would likely have been no atomic bombings and no Cold War. Instead, Harry Truman helped plunge us into a 70-plus-year nightmare from which we've yet to fully emerge.

 

Donald J. Trump
By Professor of History Allan Lichtman

In my book, The Case for Impeachment, I argue that Donald Trump entered the White House more vulnerable to impeachment than any other first-term president. The book explores eight potential grounds for Trump's impeachment. The Trump presidency can still move in a positive direction to avoid impeachment, but events of his first 100 days have only strengthened the case.

President Trump failed to divest himself of his business interests. He says his children are running the business and that they don't discuss it with him, but the reality is that he can still profit from every venture. And companies that do business with the Trump organization can profit directly and indirectly from ties to the president. His far-flung enterprises abroad may already have put him in violation of the Constitution's emoluments clause, which specifies that a president cannot receive anything of value from foreign governments. For example, the president received nearly 40 potentially lucrative trademarks from China, shortly after he seemed to walk away from this possible two-China policy and failed to declare China a currency manipulator as he promised to do on day one of his presidency.

The administration's response to the investigations of possible collusion between his associates and Russia's attack on our democracy has the hallmarks of a Nixonian cover-up: conceal, deceive, deflect. The Trump administration, when confronted, has claimed that all contacts with Russians were innocuous—just as the Nixon administration insisted that Watergate was a "third-rate burglary." Trump has also mirrored Nixon by claiming absolute presidential power and attacking the courts in his defense of his first travel ban.