Hillary's First Hundred Days Promise

Dr. Miller teaches courses in Recent American History including the Evolution of the Modern Presidency Since 1945 at the University of Cincinnati.

After watching the Democratic candidates debate, the nineteenth such contest in the long hard slog towards the coveted nomination, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of irony by one of Hillary Clinton’s responses concerning immigration reform. Clinton dropped the f-bomb. No, not the four letter cheer made popular by Country Joe and the Fish during Clinton’s formative years during the sixties. Rather, she promised to provide a “pathway to legalization” for illegal immigrants (provided they had not committed crimes in their countries of origin) within the “first hundred days of my presidency.”

Consider for a moment, Clinton’s rap against Obama: he makes pretty speeches but he is woefully short on specifics. She, not he, is the candidate with solutions. Following the logic of her critique, Obama’s rhetoric is just that, rhetoric. His brand of leadership eventually, and ultimately, will promise more than it can possibly deliver. Why then, did Senator Clinton feel compelled to make such a bold promise within the first twelve and half weeks of her prospective first term?

The genesis of this unrealistic standard of accomplishment dates back to 1933, during the first few months of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term in office. With the support of a Democratic-friendly Congress, FDR restored faith in the banking system, and began to address the substantive issues of the Great Depression with his multi-varied alphabet soup agencies and government relief programs known as the New Deal. William E. Leuchtenberg’ s masterful examination of Roosevelt’s political longevity, In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to George W. Bush (Cornell University Press, 2001), demonstrates that no matter how hard successors tried to match the FDR standard of accomplishment in their first hundred days in office, they almost always fell short. Lyndon Johnson’s swift and voluminous legislative initiatives that comprised the Great Society actually surpassed the amount of government activism in 1933. But in the strictest sense of this litmus test, Johnson had been in office for more than a year when the Great Society was launched.

Logically, it would seem that modern presidents and presidential candidates would not court this sort of comparison. Reckless to a fault, Bill Clinton threw down the gauntlet in the 1992 campaign and challenged the media to judge his presidency after its first hundred days. In the spring of 1993, then President Clinton found himself bogged down in unsuccessful attempts to win Senate confirmation for Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood as attorney general, before finally settling on Janet Reno. Likewise, his promise to end discrimination in the armed forces against gays and lesbians provoked another firestorm of controversy. The same hundred day standard was employed by People magazine in 1993 to evaluate the new directions First Lady Hillary Clinton seemed to be urging. That soft news glow faded quickly when her health care reform plan met with formidable opposition in Congress.

Which brings us back to Senator Clinton’s faux pas at the Austin debate. Even her most ardent supporters have conceded that she needs to run a flawless campaign from this point on just to remain viable. Frustrated with Senator Obama’s obvious rhetorical skills and his ability to inspire the masses, Clinton, it would seem, fell into the F-bomb trap in her efforts to out-Obama Obama.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/29/2008

When you talk about "the 100 days," most people in the world think of Napoleon and his brief resumption of power prior to the Battle of Waterloo, not the propaganda of FDR when he took over in '33.

D M Jordan - 2/25/2008

Of course, there was some criticism of GHW Bush for his lack of legislation when compared to the FDR standard, as well as over the span of 4 years. While he faced an opposition Congress which was sure to contribute to this legacy, many seem to overlook the conservative strand of his otherwise moderate politics: conservatives do not support the philosophy that exalts an active (and expensive) national government.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/25/2008

Fair enough: I was, honestly, assuming a Democratic victory in the presidential election and most analysts seem to be predicting Democratic gains in Congress. If McCain wins, and doesn't have significant coattails to reclaim ground in Congress, then it's gridlock, yeah.

Vernon Clayson - 2/25/2008

Mr. Dresner states there's "a good chance that'll be the case", i.e., legislation passing in the first three months of the next administration. He may wish that, he may assume that, he may even pray for it, but John McCain will have a deuce of a time getting anything out of Congress in the first three years, much less three mnths, of his presidency. He apparently hasn't been watching George Bush struggle with legislators, the most obstinate branch of our govenment. Strange bunch, from all appearances they would rather we lose the war and go straight to a secular and socialist state welcoming immigrants from wherever than to pass anything he proposes. It won't be any different for McCain as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reed will continue unabated in their rush to deny him even five minutes of a good day.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/25/2008

The First Hundred Days (hereafter FHD) theme isn't mere rhetoric anymore, if it ever was. Due to the nearly perpetual nature of political campaigning, it's very easy for substantial reforms to lose momentum well over a year before the next election, making the FHD window a pretty good estimate of the speed with which the new administration needs to move.

Second, since presidential campaigns now feature detailed proposals on nearly every aspect of governance, it makes sense for some of them -- the really important ones, perhaps, or the simple ones, to be ready to go immediately, and there's no reason to wait.

Finally, it's a measure of confidence: to get legislation passed in three months requires substantial Congressional support and momentum. This year, at least, there's a good chance that'll be the case.

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