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“No administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days.”
— President Trump, remarks in Kenosha, Wis., April 18, 2017
The first 100 days of a presidency mark a rather artificial milestone, but one by which all presidents have been measured since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s whirlwind of action when he took office in the midst of the Great Depression. President Trump appears especially conscious of this marker. During the presidential campaign, he even issued a list of 60 promises that he said he would fulfill in his first 100 days.
We’ve been tracking Trump’s promises, and so far he has not even taken action on 60 percent of the promises — and he’s broken five of them, such as his pledge to label China as a currency manipulator.
Yet here’s the president declaring that he has accomplished more in his first 90 days than any previous president. So how does he stack up?
There are various ways to measure presidential performance, such as number of laws passed. But of course not every law is created equally, so you have to parse the data. The same goes for executive orders and memorandums.
We sought an explanation from the White House for Trump’s claim but did not get an answer. However, White House press secretary Sean Spicer on April 19 was asked what single piece of legislation the president was most proud of in his first 100 days.
Spicer did not really answer the question but instead responded with a laundry list that he said demonstrated a “very robust agenda of activity,” such as reversing a dozen regulations set by President Barack Obama and the Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch. He also noted a drop in illegal immigration at the southern border and “a lot of activity that we’ve been very proud to see in America manufacturing and job creation” — claims we have fact-checked in the past.
Frankly, this is rather thin gruel if you are going to compare yourself to Roosevelt or other notable presidents. So let’s go through the data.
There were 76 bills signed into law under Roosevelt in the first 100 days, compared with 28 (with a week to go) under Trump. “This is higher than any first-term 100 days since 1949 (55 bills signed), but less than all first terms from 1901-1949 except for 1909,” said John Frendreis, a political science professor at Loyola University in Chicago who co-wrote a well-regarded study of legislative output in the first 100 days from 1897 to 1995.
Thirteen of the Trump bills disapprove of major regulations put in place by Obama, which signifies a reversal of action, not new action — though the agency is barred from ever repromulgating the rule in question or anything similar without congressional approval. Other bills include such actions — what Frendreis called “minor or housekeeping bills” — as naming a Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic in Pago Pago in American Samoa or creating a waiver to allow Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to be appointed even though he had recently served in the military.
Moreover, none of Trump’s bills can be considered “major” legislation according to political science standards, whereas at least nine of Roosevelt’s bills met that standard. Historians H.W. Brands of the University of Texas at Austin and David M. Kennedy of Stanford University count 15 major bills in FDR’s first 100 days, including some that remain in place.
“In this regard, Trump’s tenure has been less impressive, with no major pieces of legislation passed,” Frendreis said. “By contrast, the stimulus package was passed during Obama’s first 100 days” — actually, within Obama’s first 30 days.
Frendreis noted that the 73rd Congress was highly unusual because of the crisis atmosphere and the huge Democratic majorities, giving Roosevelt an opportunity to make a quick impact.
“Some of FDR’s initiatives were submitted to Congress in the morning and back on his desk that very same day for signatures,” said Max J. Skidmore, a political science professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. “Hardly anything other than the most extreme of emergencies could bring that about.”
“FDR’s first session of Congress was a special session he himself had called,” Brands said. “He also had the advantage of preparation, having been governor of New York for four years, three of them Depression years. So he knew what he wanted, what was popular and what might work. Trump is a novice.”
As for executive actions, as of April 19 Trump had issued 24 executive orders, 22 presidential memorandums and 20 proclamations. One of his executive orders, imposing a travel ban from certain Muslim-majority countries, was a redo of an earlier executive order that had been blocked in the courts. But the new one has also been stymied by court challenges and thus has not been implemented.
To some extent, it’s difficult to compare executive orders and memorandums among presidents, because only executive orders are numbered, but it’s somewhat arbitrary how something is labeled. (We explored this at length in 2014.) In any case, Trump’s first 90 days of executive actions do not stand out as especially unusual.
Meanwhile, Trump is woefully behind in presidential appointments, especially in naming people for Senate-confirmed posts.
In contrast to many other presidents, Trump has also not led on legislation but mostly taken his cue from Congress.
At this point, President George W. Bush was well ahead in ensuring passage of a major tax cut that he had pressed for in the election campaign. He proposed comprehensive tax legislation on Feb. 9, about three weeks after taking office, and a $1.35 trillion tax cut was passed by both houses of Congress by May 26, less than a month after Bush’s first 100 days was completed. Trump has yet to release a tax plan — and his bid to repeal and replace Obama’s signature health-care law was blocked in the House.
“Trump’s ‘skinny’ budget is not a strong start on the budget issue, even for a first-term president,” Frendreis said, adding that “my own professional judgment is that he is off to a slower-than-normal start.”
Few presidents achieve much on foreign policy in their first 100 days, and Trump is no exception. Trump has signaled a tougher posture toward North Korea and Iran and launched a volley of cruise missiles to punish Syria for a chemical-weapons attack. But it’s too early to tell whether his policies will result in positive outcomes.
“Trump actually is unusual for his first 100 days, but for a reason opposite of what he said,” said Skidmore, author of “Presidential Performance: A Comprehensive Review.” “Not only has he accomplished almost nothing, but rather his initiatives (executive orders stayed by courts, a major legislative proposal failing even to come to a vote when his party controls both houses, etc.) have notoriously been unsuccessful.”
“FDR definitely outclasses Trump,” Brands said. “Fifteen major bills through Congress, to zero for Trump.”
The Pinocchio Test
It’s rather silly for any president to suggest that his first 100 days somehow topped Roosevelt’s achievement. Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Obama are credited with significant legislative achievements early in their first terms, but much of their success generally came after the first 100 days. Trump would be well advised to not make such a big deal about this because the available evidence shows that he in no way comes close to matching FDR’s record.