Clinton's Magic Marker THE PRESIDENT'S FIRST 100 DAYS

April 25, 1993|By MICHAEL NELSON

Exactly forty years ago, widespread criticism in the press of Dwight D. Eisenhower's "do-nothing" First Hundred Days surprised the recently inaugurated president. The Constitution gave him four years to make his mark, Mr. Eisenhower complained, so why was he being held up for inspection after little more than three months?

The answer, of course, lay in the celebrated "Hundred Days" of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first term. In the period from March 9 to June 16, 1933, Congress passed virtually the entire New Deal program into law, then adjourned. Reporters, taken by the almost biblical roundness of the one hundred-day-long session, labeled it the Hundred Days -- capital H, capital D. ("First" was a later addition; Mr. Roosevelt, like his predecessors, was inaugurated on March 4, five days before the Hundred Days began.)

In 1961, John F. Kennedy, aware of Mr. Eisenhower's unhappy experience, decided to launch a pre-emptive strike against the First Hundred Days evaluators. "All this will not be finished in the first hundred days," he said in his inaugural address. Nice try, but First Hundred Days pieces filled the end-of-April newspapers and evening news programs anyway.

Presidents since Mr. Kennedy have succumbed to the inevitability of the early report card, and their public relations staffs have worked hard to put a good face on things. In all likelihood, the Clinton White House will issue a long and, in parts, fanciful list of accomplishments on or around April 29, which, since the Twentieth Amendment established January 20 as the start of the president's term, is exactly the hundredth day. Reporters and pundits will respond to the president's efforts with varying degrees of cynicism and enthusiasm.

What would a reasonable evaluation of Bill Clinton's First Hundred days look like? Something like this: President Clinton has done virtually all that the historical moment has allowed him to do. Unfortunately, the historical moment only allows him to be a President of Preparation.

Presidents of Preparation are wanna-be Presidents of Achievement -- that is, they want to be numbered in the ranks of those 20th-century presidents who have dramatically altered the role of the federal government in American society through presidentially-inspired legislation. (The theory of cycles of presidencies of preparation, achievement and consolidation was developed by Erwin C. Hargrove and me in our book, "Presidents, Politics and Policy.")

The ranks of Presidents of Achievement are small -- of the 18 presidents who have served since 1900, only Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan qualify -- because the preconditions for such a presidency are so great.

The first requirement is an empowering election: after a change-oriented campaign, a landslide victory for the new president with long congressional coattails.

The second is an array of governmentally workable, politically appealing ideas for new public policies.

Finally, the president must be endowed with a wide range of political skills that will enable him to lead Congress, the public and the executive branch.

Each of these standards is high. All of them must be met for a Presidency of Achievement to occur.

Mr. Clinton certainly has the political skills required of a President of Achievement. He is a talented practitioner of public politics: a masterful interlocutor with studio audiences and talk-show hosts and a better-than-average (and much better than expected) speech-maker, especially when he riffs on the text, as in his televised economic address to Congress in February. Less successful have been his encounters with reporters, which have been few in number and sometimes testy in tone. Tense press-president relations are nothing new, but Mr. Clinton's seem worse, earlier, than any recent president's.

Within the government, Mr. Clinton also receives high marks for leadership skill. Much of his time since the election has been spent wooing, cajoling, persuading, and sometimes punishing members of Congress -- all to good effect. The best measure of Mr. Clinton's success is that he has achieved greater unity among Democrats -- including the many freshmen elected in 1992, most of them either less pro-government or more liberal than he -- than any president in history. Mr. Clinton also has

masterfully blended solidarity of purpose with diversity of talent and background in his White House staff. Although he gets more involved in the details of policy-making than most presidential scholars think wise, he seems to have the energy, interest and background to pull it off without becoming physically drained or intellectually mired.

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