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 The standard is outdated, inappropriate, and suggests that regardless of circumstances all presidents should be judged by the extent to which they measure up to FDR’s flurry of policy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.”

A second assumption of the first hundred days standard is that government action is better than inaction and that quick action is better than a slower more deliberate response to political, social, and economic ills. The rush to act is inconsistent with the tenor of constitutional government and consequently, it conditions representatives to behave less like republican statesmen and more like demagogues. The American constitutional system is not designed for quick momentary action. To the contrary, it is designed especially in the realm of law making to be slow and deliberative. Why? So that disparate voices and interests can be heard, a more sober reflective spirit will prevail over the passion of the moment, and sufficient attention will be given by lawmakers to reaching a harmonious compromise that incorporates aspects of multiple interests. The aim of American constitutionalism is, to use James Madison’s words, to allow “the cool and deliberate sense of the community” to prevail. The American political system is designed for individuals with a temperament that exhibits patience, compromise, and deliberation. Quick momentary inhibition was considered by the Framers to be the cause of passions that were contrary to reason and the enduring interests of the people and their nation. The Framers rejected “pure” (i.e., direct) democracy precisely because it gave free reign to the momentary majority will and allowed it to dominate minority interests.

The conduct of contemporary American politics is increasingly characterized by gnostic impatience. The world in general and American society in particular are poorly organized and in need of significant if not revolutionary change. Evil, imperfection, and injustice are not tolerated to any degree. Politics is not the art of the possible but the instrument of metastatic transformation, i.e., not only can particular political, social, and economic problems be effectively addressed by public policy, but they can be permanently eradicated. In the past one hundred years, Americans have been promised by their presidents a permanent end to war, poverty, fear, drug use, terrorism, and deep recessions. None of these promises have been kept because they are the products of metastatic faith.

From this perspective, it might be useful to use the one-hundred years standard rather than the one-hundred days standard to measure the performance of American presidents. Doing so might be a sobering experience that inspires a new realism in American politics that is less prone to gnostic impatience and more tolerant of imperfection, less apt to confuse heaven and earth and more apt to see enmassment as destructive to ordered liberty and constitutionalism.

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Michael Federici
Dr. Michael P. Federici is Professor of Political Science at Mercyhurst College. He is in his twentieth year of college teaching. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from The Catholic University of American in Washington, D.C. (1990), his M.A. from CUA in 1985, and his B.S. in Economics from Elizabethtown College in 1983. Dr. Federici has published two books, The Challenge of Populism (1991) and Eric Voegelin: The Restoration of Order (2002) and several articles and book reviews. He has a forthcoming book, an edited volume of Orestes Brownson’s political writings (ISI Books), due out in 2010 and he is currently working on The Political Theory of Alexander Hamilton to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Dr. Federici’s teaching and research areas include American Government, Constitutional Law, Civil Liberties, Political Theory, and American Political Thought. Dr. Federici has taught American Government for the Junior Statesmen Foundation Summer School at Yale University and Georgetown University. He won the Joseph Friedl Award at Concord College that is given to the professor who “Exemplifies the true essence of the college professor” and he won the “Distinguished Teaching Award” at Mercyhurst College in 2004. Dr. Federici participated in a debate January 29, 2008 at Georgetown University sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Tocqueville Forum on “America: Empire or Republic?” The debate is available on the web at: http://isi.org/lectures/lectures.aspx. He also gave a lecture at Notre Dame Law School in April 2008. He is currently president of the Mercyhurst College Faculty Senate and serves on the College’s Board of Trustees. He was recently appointed to the Editorial Board of the journal Humanitas and to the Board of Directors of The Academy of Philosophy and Letters. In August 2002, he was one of a select group of American scholars invited to deliver a paper during the Chinese Comparative Literature Association’s Conference in Nanjing, China. In 1993 Dr. Federici participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Thomas Jefferson that was held at The University of Virginia and The College of William and Mary. He was a Distinguished Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. In 2004 he wrote a winning grant application to the U.S. Department of Education for a $984,920 three-year grant from the Teaching American History Program for the Corry Area School District. In 2005 he wrote another successful TAHG for the Erie City School District for $499,736. He served as the Project Director for both grants. Professor Federici has been interviewed for local and national media including WJET TV, WICU TV, WSEE TV, C-SPAN, WQLN Radio, WJET Radio, WNYC Radio, WBEN Radio (Buffalo), The Erie Times News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and CQ Weekly.


  1. Thank you for a very fine post. And I’m glad to see some Voegelin, at least implicitly.

    But in my more despairing moments, such as right now, I wonder how metastatic faith in politics can ever be undone when our education is oriented towards forming such souls. I view a great deal of current University education as formation for a metastatic regime (drones with stings?).

    And then what hope is there, really?

  2. FDR was but a piker compared to our current parasitical political class. Washington D.C. is now essentially a Bodybuilding Carnival with debt spending the new steroids. They oil one another up and pose and smile and sing lusty songs of patriotic fervor before convening with their handlers and benefactors on K Street to count neat stacks of hundies.

    All of it, of course, in humble “service” to “the people”…a more gullible group of willingly pick-pocketed rubes not seen since Mussolini yammered away to enthralled crowds from the second floor terrace of his palazzo across from the Victor Emmanuel Monument. People loved the spectacle of it until the spectacle appeared to leave them with a target on their backs and a chorus of growling empty stomachs.

    Somebody recently asserted that we should not lose “faith”. With Cheney and Bush creeping back up in popularity and Obama turning a far more smooth Bait and Switch than his churlish predecessors, ones faith in restoring an order closer to that described in your fine essay gets ever more remote. Faith becomes, in this context, almost pathological….and certainly history-averse.

    Leviathan has bred a generation in thrall to quick and easy answers…pat justifications for blithe acceptance. But, as has always been the case, Leviathan is never happy for long and begins to consume itself while the only relevant question is how many bystanders it will consume as it enjoys its final meal.

    As Abbey asserted, “When the situation is hopeless, there’s nothing to worry about”.

  3. I’m convinced that the only thing that will turn this country around is a major tragedy of Biblical proportions. I am not hoping or praying for such an event.

    About all we can do is try to work on our little areas of the country to build a sense of community…there’s that word again… 😉

    I don’t think it can be done through political means. It might be possible with church and civic organizations such as Rotary or Scouting (that depend on free association vs. government mandates..like our “Dear Leader’s plan for “compulsory volunteerism.”) Towns and smaller cities that have a military base or college/university within the near area probably have the best chance of succeeding at this type of endeavour.

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