President Donald Trump listens as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin speaks at the Treasury Department in Washington, April 21, 2017.
President Donald Trump listens as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin speaks at the Treasury Department in Washington, April 21, 2017.

WASHINGTON - Donald Trump was sworn-in as president of the United States three months ago — on January 20, 2017.

On Saturday, April 29, reporters, the general public, and Trump himself will mark his first 100 days in office.

But many Americans and people overseas may be wondering: what is so special about a president’s first 100 days?

The short answer is that nothing is very special about it.

A president’s term is four years, or 1,461 days. So 100 days is just a small percentage of that time.

In fact, many observers point out that the major issues earlier U.S. presidents faced often came much later in their terms. For example, George W. Bush had been president for more than seven months when terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.

But Americans still use a president’s 100-day mark as a time to consider how the new administration is doing, and whether things have changed.

Over the next few days, you will hear many officials and reporters commenting on how well Trump has performed as president.

Yes, but why 100 days?

Not surprisingly, the idea of 100 days has its roots in history. Professor David Greenberg notes that the term was used in relation to the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815.

Les cent jours meant the short time in which Napoleon escaped from exile, raised an army, and briefly regained power in France.

Napoleon in Russia.
Napoleon in Russia.

The U.S. version of “the 100 days” can be traced to the 1930s. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in November 1932 during a major economic depression.

By the time he took office the following January, banks were beginning to fail. The president quickly took action. In less than a week, Roosevelt persuaded Congress to pass a major reform bill that helped stop the banking failure.

The president then went on to push 14 other bills through Congress. They created new public works and social welfare programs aimed at easing the effects of the depression.

Roosevelt also signed laws establishing new federal agencies, including one to set rules for the stock market. And he showed Americans a new kind of leadership by speaking directly to the public over the radio.

“My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking...”

He called the broadcasts “fireside chats.”

In one fireside chat, Roosevelt noted how busy and important his first 100 days had been. The term stuck.

This photo was taken moments before U.S. President
This photo was taken moments before U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt began his historic fireside chat to the American people on March 12, 1933.

A high bar

Since then, U.S. presidents expect to be measured by how ambitious and successful their first 100 days in office are.

The idea is that presidents are likely to be most effective right after they take office, when they are usually still popular with the public. In addition, lawmakers have a lot of reasons to cooperate with a new leader. If presidents have any major legislation they want to pass, they often try to do it at the very beginning of their first term.

But historians have found that no modern president has done as much in the first 100 days as Franklin Roosevelt did. For one thing, as historian David Greenberg notes, Roosevelt took office at an unusual time. The economic depression made the first weeks of his presidency especially urgent.

As a result, many presidents try to lower expectations about what they can do in their first 100 days. President John F. Kennedy even said at his 1961 inauguration ceremony:

“All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin...”

FILE - President John F. Kennedy delivers his inau
FILE - President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 1961.

Campaign promises

But the fact that presidents rarely accomplish as much as they would like does not stop them from making promises during their political campaigns.

When he was a presidential candidate, Donald Trump spoke often about what he would do in his first 100 days in office.

So far, he has taken steps to address four of his top five stated goals. He has successfully accomplished one: ending U.S. membership in the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

This week, Trump has made an effort to call attention to his accomplishments during the first weeks of his administration. He noted his success at filling a position on the U.S. Supreme Court.

At the same time, Trump has dismissed the importance of the 100-day anniversary. He tweeted, "No matter how much I accomplish during the ridiculous standard of the first 100 days, & it has been a lot (including S.C.), media will kill!"