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Why It Is Significant To Mark A President's 1st 100 Days


President Biden used his first address to Congress to lay out the biggest government spending plan in generations. The president wants to spend trillions of dollars to create jobs and improve access to education and child care. The speech came as Biden wrapped up his 100th day in office, which has become a sort of informal marker for how a new administration is doing early on. For more on the history of this bellwether, we're joined by NPR's Ron Elving, senior editor and correspondent. Ron, thanks for being here.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: So much is made of the 100th day in office. How did this come to be? Does it have any legal or official meaning?

ELVING: It actually does not. It's a date on a calendar, and the world moves on.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ELVING: One presidential adviser recently call it a Hallmark holiday, meaning a kind of made-up occasion.

MARTIN: Right.

ELVING: But over the past dozen presidencies, it has taken on a kind of significance as a marker, a way of measuring a new president's achievements. And it's often a way of saying that the new president is just getting started, just beginning to have an impact or maybe not managing to do much at all.

MARTIN: How long has it been happening? How long have people been using this time frame?

ELVING: In this country, it goes back to Franklin D. Roosevelt and his first 100 days in office in 1933. The country was wallowing in recession. The banks were closing. People were out of work, standing in bread lines. FDR came in with a big head of steam and took it all on. And in a hundred days, Congress had passed 76 new laws, roughly one each working day. And FDR had issued nearly a hundred executive orders on his own.

MARTIN: And that's what was called the New Deal. And it fundamentally changed this country.

ELVING: Yes, and in some ways, almost overnight. The banks reopened. People felt better about putting their money in them again. And by summer, there were government programs putting people back to work and giving people hope. Other big changes like Social Security and new labor laws would come later in FDR's first term.

MARTIN: Since then, every new president has been, in some sense, then measured against that standard?

ELVING: in varying degrees, yes, even though no president has faced such dire circumstances, and no president has had quite the same claim to public support as FDR at the beginning. We should remember he started out with a landslide election and huge majorities in Congress. You could make an analogy to Lyndon Johnson in his first year as an elected president. That was 1965, when he did the Voting Rights Act and created Medicare and Medicaid and revamped the immigration system. Of course, it was also the year he greatly escalated the war in Vietnam.

MARTIN: Have there been other presidents who have made such big, fundamental changes to the country in that short a time?

ELVING: Not in the sense of laws and programs, but you could say the first months of Ronald Reagan's presidency were transformative in a directional sense. Reagan had campaigned on cutting taxes, and he did so aggressively. He called for a bigger defense budget and cuts to most other government programs. And he made those things happen, too. So some people said at the time it was kind of like the end of the New Deal, the bookend on FDR's hundred days.

MARTIN: So, Ron, you watched the speech, I assume, on Wednesday night. You have seen a lot of these addresses to Congress over the years. What struck you?

ELVING: I had to wonder about Biden's personal reaction to this bizarre scene. Here's a guy who's been in the room where presidential address has happened for nearly 50 years now. He's been around to witness the first address to Congress by seven different presidents and more than 30 State of the Union addresses. And because he's been a candidate for president since the 1980s and vice president for eight years himself, you know he's imagined himself many times doing what he finally did Wednesday night. And then he got up in front of a room that's mostly empty-looking, with a smattering of people wearing masks. But that is the world of the pandemic. And it's the pandemic that has presented a historic opportunity for Biden, much as the Depression did for FDR.

MARTIN: NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.

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