The Secret to Success for Biden’s First 100 DaysRoundup
tags: Joe Biden, political media
Amber Roessner is an associate professor in the University of Tennessee’s School of Journalism & Electronic Media and the author of Jimmy Carter and the Birth of the Marathon Media Campaign, recently published by LSU Press.
President Biden has announced ambitious plans for his first 100 days, including mammoth economic and environmental initiatives and herculean efforts around health care, education and social justice.
And though early public opinion polls show that most Americans hold Biden and his goal of uniting the nation in high regard, the question remains: Will support for Biden’s ambitious agenda last?
One key factor will be his relationship with the news media. Over the past 40 years, as positive presidential-media relations devolved, so too did the chance of gaining the public mandate to enact the president’s legislative agenda. Moreover, when greeted with adversarial coverage, presidents from both parties have tended to act in a Nixonian fashion by circumventing elite national reporters and attempting to speak directly to the U.S. public. But bypassing the media only further inflames tensions and builds mistrust. For the Biden administration, such a tact would ultimately undermine its promise to govern with integrity and transparency.
It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who famously introduced the first 100 days as a measure of presidential effectiveness. During the first months of his presidency, he passed 15 major pieces of legislation as the “starting of the wheels of the New Deal,” an accomplishment that he assessed and celebrated with the American public in one of his famous fireside chats. However, despite his masterful efforts to go public with a tour de force of spin, his relationship with arguably the most important audiences in Washington — the working press and Congress — soon began to deteriorate and slow his legislative agenda. Nevertheless, Roosevelt’s self-made mythology about the significance of the first 100 days survived and became a measuring stick of presidential effectiveness in the decades ahead.
By the 1960s, common political logic, espoused by the high priests of U.S. journalism, history and political science, dictated that presidential success depended on a robust first 100 days. Even though some political elites acknowledged that this litmus test was “silly,” an absurd political “trap,” staff within presidential administrations recognized its importance as a journalistic milestone. Thus, even as they attempted to limit expectations for the first 100 days, as John F. Kennedy did in his inaugural address by acknowledging that “all this will not be finished in the first hundred days,” White House communications staff often attempted to frame even minor legislative victories, such as the Kennedy administration’s creation of the Peace Corps, as major administrative accomplishments.
News reporters, however, had begun to bristle at such news management techniques. They recognized that these public relations efforts were part of a new trend in which official reports from government sources went beyond spin, to posturing, hedging or even misleading and distorting rather than telling the objective truth. “As long as officials merely didn’t tell the whole truth, very few of us complained,” New York Times journalist James “Scotty” Reston admitted. But Vietnam and then later Watergate exposed the dangers of half-truths. By the time Jimmy Carter took office, newshounds like Reston “foamed at the mouth like a pack of wild dogs,” as Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell put it years later.
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