FROM the day President Clinton was inaugurated, observers have been speculating on the new president's first 100 days, as if a political clock is running that will ring on April 29. It is, and it will. Politicians and commentators will look back on this brief period (which represents less than 7 percent of the presidential term) and assess Mr. Clinton's successes and failures. What does our judgment of the first 100 days mean, and does it matter?
The 100-day yardstick was created in the first term of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected in November 1932 during what seemed the depth of the Great Depression. To the nation's increasing distress, the Depression grew even deeper in the four months between FDR's election and his taking office. The day after his inauguration, Mr. Roosevelt called Congress to convene for a special session beginning four days later. It had become quite common for a new president to summon Congress in a special session; what was uncommon was the volume and impact of legislation which Roosevelt proposed for adoption, and the eagerness with which Congress enacted it.
Nothing like it had ever been seen in Congress before, but nothing had ever been seen in America before like the growing unemployment, poverty, and business and bank failures that plagued the country.
Even before Congress convened, Roosevelt declared a four-day bank holiday, which Congress approved on the day it returned. In quick succession Congress adopted laws to cut government salaries, employ young men in public service projects, finance state relief projects, restore the purchasing power of farmers, create the Tennessee Valley Authority to produce and sell electric power in one of the nation's poorest regions, encourage home ownership, reform banking and investment practices, and enforce codes f or fair competition in many industrial fields.
It was the beginning of the New Deal, an unprecedented commitment by the national government to be involved in wide areas of economic and social policy, and it was all accomplished in the special session of Congress that began on March 9 and ended on its 100th day, June 16. Ever since, presidents have been measured by this standard, and inevitably have fallen far short of Roosevelt's achievement.
Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman, succeeded to the office on FDR's death, while America still waged war against Germany and Japan, a circumstance that precluded strong advocacy of domestic goals early in his presidency. In different ways and for different reasons, each of the elected presidents who succeeded Mr. Truman failed to exercise bold leadership at the outset. Of the Republicans, only Dwight Eisenhower ever (and only for two years) dealt with a Congress in which both houses were controlled by his party, and he appeared both unable and unwilling to exercise domestic presidential leadership.
While Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" agenda was taking shape almost from the day he succeeded to the presidency upon the assassination of John Kennedy, it was not until he was elected in 1964 that Congress adopted a series of far-reaching laws on health, education, civil rights, housing, and the "War on Poverty." It was a legislative program that rivaled Roosevelt's 100 days in its impact on American society. However, of all Mr. Johnson's major programs, only a precedent-setting law to provide federal aid for elementary and secondary education was adopted within his first 100 days.
We can be grateful that crises facing succeeding new administrations have not been as grave and urgent as 1933's. Another difference is that, since 1934, presidents no longer call a special session at the beginning of the term, because a constitutional amendment provides that Congress convenes at the beginning of January and a new president takes office later that month.
The 100 days test is unfair. A president has at least a four-year term in which to produce a record by which to be judged. Nevertheless, an early appraisal (but not as arbitrary as one given on the 100th day) is relevant and inescapable. The first impression of a new president, or anyone in a new position, colors later evaluations and is not easily altered. We tend to be generous, forgiving of small errors, and inclined to offer more support to the new person on the job, even when the job is the nation's
most important. Consequently, nearly all presidents do best in their relations with Congress in their first year in office. Typically, President Bush was most successful in winning roll call votes in Congress in his first year, and least successful in his last. This has tended to be true whether the party that controlled Congress was the same as the president's or not.
It is therefore likely that Clinton has his best chance at winning the adoption of controversial legislation this year. If he stumbles frequently, scatters his fire too widely and Congress and the electorate become confused as to his priorities; or if he fails to come up with specific proposals on key issues, this year's record will be disappointing and Clinton's domestic prospects for the following three years will be diminished. But if he articulates clear policies, sponsors specific bills to advance h is objectives, and recognizes the value of consultation and compromise with Congress, Clinton will be off to a good start.