A Presidential term may last four years, but you still only get one chance at a first impression.
As Joe Biden navigates the first days of his Administration, public attention is extraordinarily focused on one issue: the COVID-19 pandemic. Even from this early date, it’s clear the Biden White House’s response to the pandemic will be a major component of their legacy. Which begs the question: Does an Administration’s first days typically provide an accurate portrait of their entire term?
To answer that, I took a look back at the last seven presidencies and the events of their first days. Additionally, I examined their first approval ratings and the overall trend throughout their first year.
Many Presidents pledge to shake up Washington, but few actually succeed to the degree Jimmy Carter did. The Georgian took great pride in flouting convention, and did so just minutes into his presidency. President Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter walked about a mile and a half from the Capitol to the White House during the Inaugural parade. This down-home attitude also led him to cancel chauffeur service for the White House staff.
Most of the coverage was dominated, however, by a move Carter made on his first full day in office. The new President’s pardon of those who evaded the draft during the Vietnam War managed to outrage both veterans organizations and anti-war groups (the latter wanted deserters covered as well).
Yet all these maverick moves were not without consequence, as the leaders of Washington bristled at Carter’s arrogant independence. This was evident even in the first week when Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd publicly complained that Carter was leaving him out of the loop. These very tensions would eventually consume Carter’s Administration, but were held at bay through his honeymoon period.
Approval Rating: President Carter started out at 66% and even managed to improve up to 75% in the spring. By the fall, though, he was down in the 50s.
While Joe Biden’s first days are consumed by a singular crisis, Ronald Reagan’s Administration was blessed to begin at the culmination of a national drama.
Just minutes after the official transfer of power, Iran freed the 52 American hostages they’d been holding for the preceding 444 days. This created an incredible split-screen as news organizations covered their release concurrently with Reagan’s swearing-in. The new President even found out about the hostage’s release live on TV.
Constant TV coverage continued for days as it tracked every part of the hostages’ journey home and celebrated with multiple prime-time specials. The feel-good story crowded out everything else and provided the perfect opening for Reagan’s eventual ‘Morning in America’ re-election message.
Approval Rating: The triumph in Iran fueled a rise for Reagan from 51% to 60% before the attempt on his life pushed it up to 68%. Although, thanks to economic trouble, he was underwater by the end of 1981.
The grand opening for Reagan’s successor was nowhere near as exciting. George H.W. Bush was the first sitting Vice President to ascend to the top spot since Martin Van Buren back in 1837. As a result, the inauguration ceremony lacked any symbolic passing of the torch.
The closest that the ‘kinder, gentler’ Bush came to a scandal was the revelation that his nominee for HHS Secretary was pro-choice. In fact, his first week was so boring that the New York Times wrote two separate pieces about how dull it was. While Bush was likely pleased at the time, this sleepy reputation would hurt him four years later.
Approval Rating: Apparently boring was big in 1989. Bush was able to get his initial 51% up to 63% in only a month and enjoyed numbers in the 60s throughout the rest of that year.
Bill Clinton’s start, however, was anything but tame. On January 21st, his nominee for Attorney General was forced to withdraw after it was revealed she employed an undocumented immigrant as a nanny.
That same day, the New York Times detailed the Administration’s plan to lift the ban on homosexual troops serving in the military. This issue became a nightmare for Clinton, as resistance from the Joint Chiefs and Congressional leaders made sure it stayed on the front page for a week until he finally punted it to the fall.
Then there was the January 26th announcement that First Lady Hillary Clinton would be leading the doomed effort to reform health care. The Clintons got tough reviews for this poor kickoff, and their struggles would culminate in a terrible spring. Altogether it was a fitting beginning for a tumultuous tenure.
Approval Rating: Clinton was the first to see his numbers drop in his first weeks as his 58% rating dropped to 51%. By June it was all the way down to 37%, before rebounding into the 50s in December.
George W. Bush began his term with the inauspicious honor of being the first President in a generation to face protests on his Inauguration Day. Controversy over the Florida recount threatened to overshadow Bush’s debut, and Democrats sought to take advantage by delaying the confirmation vote of Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft.
Despite these unfavorable circumstances, Bush was bailed out by some final Clinton controversies. The pardon of Marc Rich was widely condemned, as were some pranks the outgoing staff played on the new Bush team. By the end of January, Bush was being showered with acclaim. Only when the spotlight was truly trained on the Bush White House would that luck run out.
Approval Rating: Bush’s honeymoon was subdued, although he did improve from 57% to 63%. His numbers stayed in that range until the September 11th attacks sent them up to 90%.
Like Joe Biden, Barack Obama assumed the Presidency in the midst of a crisis. The Great Recession was the unanimous top issue throughout the nation and President Obama’s first act was an economic stimulus bill.
In his memoir, Pres. Obama describes learning that the House GOP told the press that they wouldn’t be supporting the stimulus just before he traveled to the Capitol to pitch them the plan. “Am I correct to assume, then, that this shit’s not on the level?,” he recalled asking at the time. A few days later, the legislation passed the House without a single Republican voting in favor.
Meanwhile the new President was also dealing with a problem familiar to his Democratic predecessor, as controversy engulfed his nominee for Treasury Secretary. While Tim Geithner survived, similar troubles would torpedo HHS hopeful Tom Daschle.
President Obama’s forthright response to his Cabinet troubles showed he’d learned from Clinton’s mistakes, and the episode did not end up hurting his popularity. The showdown with Congress, on the other hand, was just the first of many partisan battles to come.
Approval Rating: Perhaps thanks to the historic nature of his Presidency, Barack Obama began with a strong 67% rating. His numbers stayed in the 60s until debate over healthcare reform in the summer sent them down to around 50%.
For a generation, Bill Clinton was the quintessential example of a President who stumbled out of the gate. In 2017, that mantle was finally passed along to Donald J. Trump. It began after Trump became obsessed with news coverage which pointed out that the crowd for his inauguration was significantly smaller than the one for Barack Obama in 2009. The whole affair dominated the news cycle for several days and became one of Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s greatest regrets.
It would take about a week, though, for the first major controversy to occur with the sudden implementation of the Trump travel ban. The executive order sparked a sea of protests throughout America, with particular focus on airports where some emigrants were temporarily detained.
For the Trump Administration, the first days would prove to be the perfect harbinger for a chaotic and divisive four years.
Approval Rating: Trump’s 45% was the worst opening rating for any President and it fell five more points after a month. He’d spend the rest of the calendar year in the 30s.
When reviewing the past half-century, it’s apparent that the initial days tell us quite a lot about a Presidency. With the possible exception of George W. Bush, whose Administration was largely shaped by 9/11, the DNA of each subsequent term was evident even in its first moments. As a result, it turns out we already know quite a lot about the Biden White House.