The 100 Years vs. The 100 Days Standard

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Erie, PA. Americans were reminded last month that since the time of the New Deal, it has become customary for presidents and other public officials to be judged by their performance during their first one-hundred days in office. It is time to reconsider the usefulness of the one-hundred days standard for judging public officials. The standard is outdated, inappropriate, and suggests that regardless of circumstances all presidents should be judged by the extent to which they measure up to FDR’s flurry of policy programs intended to combat the Great Depression.

The standard is based on the assumption that the more activist a president is, the better the nation fares. Moreover, it attempts to assess most policies before they have been implemented or had sufficient time to succeed or fail. Judging presidents by the first one-hundred days in office rushes judgment by forming it in the passion of the moment when critical distance is extremely difficult, if not impossible. While the first one-hundred days standard may be misguided and inappropriate, the use of a one-hundred years standard might indicate a movement toward a new realism in American politics that marks the end of big government and the romantic humanitarianism that is its animating force.

The first one-hundred days standard assumes things that are open to question. For example, it assumes that public policy is the appropriate response to virtually any economic, cultural, or political problem. Government can fix what is broken because, unlike local or state communities, it has the capacity and resources to address the problem at hand. In short, the scale of national and international political, social, and economic problems requires an institutional response of equal scale. It is often remarked that national problems can only be solved by national solutions or that global problems can only be solved by global solutions. The inclination of many Americans is to accept the assumption that “the economy,” “poverty,” “education,” “healthcare,” “the environment,” and so on are national or international problems beyond the capacity of local communities.

We suffer from what Wilhelm Röpke called “enmassment,” the creation of a uniform mass culture in which individuals are increasingly alienated from genuine and local communities that provide identity, purpose, obligation, love, happiness, and a sense of place or belonging. Because we are increasing alienated from these communities and increasingly psychologically attached to distant national and global identities, the importance of local communities ceases to be part of how we imagine politics. We find it difficult to imagine how the problems of political, social, and economic disorder can be addressed on a local scale. Wendell Berry’s novels and essays are a good starting point for reshaping political imagination in a way that can perceive local community as the foundation for a new pedigree of politics. The unintended consequences of national policies and the “progress” they engender are evident in the loss of friendship and belonging. Berry reminds his readers of the consequences mass culture has on what Burke calls one’s “little platoon.”

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