David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and a Pulitzer Prize-winner for his coverage of U.S. politics.
Napoleon Bonaparte began it, with his return from Elba exile in 1815. Franklin Roosevelt enshrined it, with the frantic opening to his presidency amid the despair of the Great Depression. John Kennedy disavowed it, saying that his priorities could not possibly be redeemed in that period.
Even so, the first hundred days – perhaps the only phrase from French history applied to American history – have become a common marker for presidents, the period in which new chief executives set forth their agenda and then try to achieve much of it in a frenzied rush to capitalize on their popularity. President-elect Donald J. Trump will be no different.
He begins his hundred days with an advantage possessed by few other presidents. Like his predecessor Barack Obama, who as a black president was destined to be a historic figure regardless of his accomplishments, Mr. Trump already has a place in history as the first truly outsider president since Andrew Jackson, 188 years ago.
But Mr. Trump has made it clear that he's determined to be remembered for more than being a businessman-bull in the china shop of the United States capital.
The persistence of a Republican Congress, ironically, is his first problem area. For generations, the working assumption in the American capital was that the president proposes and the Congress disposes. In this case, the hostility between the Republican regulars and Mr. Trump could result in (unceremonious) Republican disposal of at least some of what President Trump proposes.
That said, Mr. Trump's agenda will include a series of tax and budget proposals, a re-evaluation of America's posture abroad, aggressive talk and perhaps some action on international trade agreements, and an initiative to replace Obamacare, one area around which the Republicans on Capitol Hill will rally. As for the wall on the Mexican border – expect a range war on that.
Then there will be the confirmation hurdle, first for members of the cabinet. "You've got to have the right people – loyal, to be sure, but mostly it's important to have competent people," John H. Sununu, who was White House chief of staff under George H.W. Bush, said in an interview. "You cannot have amateurs."
The Democrats will make a final, but futile, attempt in the next six weeks to confirm Mr. Obama's selection of Merrick B. Garland to fill a high-court vacancy, which was never even taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the first step in the confirmation process. That's going nowhere. Mr. Trump will have his own selection early in January, and the small but obstructionist Democratic rump in the Senate will attempt to play the role the Republican obstructionists did against Mr. Garland. This will not be pretty.
But the torment of Mr. Trump's hundred days – "the time to decide what you'll fight for" in the words of Kenneth Duberstein, White House chief of staff for Ronald Reagan – won't only come from the Capitol Hill.
The entire Republican establishment, plus conservatives who until six months ago thought they were on the ascendancy in American politics, will be engaged in a profound examination of their own status and prospects and very likely will emerge from that process determined to push Mr. Trump rightward and toward a governing respectability that will be at odds with his campaign style, his personal style – and, he will remind them, his winning style.
All this combat – simply a renewal of the campaign wars that so wearied the country – will occur against the sure prospect that something unanticipated will emerge in his first hundred days. Unexpected events, never good, sometimes harrowing, even gruesome, inevitably arise during the early days of a presidency. "Something – an international crisis, a bad flood, an earthquake – will come up," said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a Gettysburg College expert on the presidency, "and then we'll get an idea of the real character of the administration."
Some things, however, are sure. The Democrats will declare that the end of the world is upon us, and many people, including long-standing American allies, will agree. Mr. Trump will deliver a State of the Union Address that will be a tour d'horizon of his budget priorities along with a searing indictment of his predecessor's priorities. And he will have an early visit with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, perhaps in Washington, but just as likely in Ottawa.
That will be a spectacle for the ages – two men of different generations, different outlooks, different sensibilities, different profiles for their wives. Canadians may remember how much Mr. Trump's vanquished rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, enjoyed her Ottawa visit during her husband's presidency; clad in a handsome teal ski parka, she even took a turn on the frozen Rideau Canal. Perhaps Melania Trump will employ a cold-weather skate as a way to create warm relations across the border. BeaverTails, anyone? Maple butter, apple cinnamon or Killaloe Sunrise?