David Demarest shares his thoughts on the first 100 days of a presidency.
David Demarest served as White House Communications Director under President George H.W. Bush. He currently serves as a Senior Advisor at Brian Communications.
A president’s first 100 days are an important – if not arbitrary – indicator of what the new administration will deliver. For some, it’s sweeping changes to mark a notable departure from previous policy, while for others it’s building upon the successes of the previous administration while staking out one’s own unique approach to governing. In the George H.W. Bush administration, it was the latter – and as White House Communications Director, I had the uniquely challenging job to walk that fine line.
Part of the challenge of any president’s first 100 days – particularly in their first term – is the fact that it’s arguably the most publicly watched period of their presidency. It’s, essentially akin to building an airplane in flight…a well-oiled machine it is not. In most cases, the Cabinet is being confirmed by the Senate, staff still hasn’t been completely hired, the entire administration is still getting the hang of things, messaging isn’t totally cohesive, the public has big expectations…I could go on and on.
That brings me to today – President Biden’s 100th day in office. Having been in the White House during that unusual and unfamiliar period, it’s interesting to compare his tenure to that of Bush 41. Even though it’s only been 30-or so years, it seems like their presidencies exist in totally different worlds, with unique challenges, priorities and technologies. Much like Bush, Biden is a former vice president so he had experience being in the Executive Branch and had a roster of trusted advisors to turn to early on.
From a messaging standpoint, I have to commend the Biden team. They were robbed of a smooth transition, but they have really gotten up to speed quickly to ensure tight messaging from the get-go. Biden campaigned as a uniter, and so far, he has done a good job restoring some of the normalcy and stability to the White House. His first 100 days have been largely defined by the pandemic, and he’s made it clear that is his biggest priority. Whether it was by ramping up vaccine production, setting ambitious (but achievable) goals for vaccination, delivering economic relief or restoring trust in our institutions, so far he has hit all these markers that he set for himself early in his term.
While Biden’s had some wins…let’s remember his team is still building an airplane mid-flight. Immigration has been a sticky point for his administration, so much so that he’s designated its oversight to Vice President Harris. He is trying to push for a bold infrastructure bill, while trying to live up to his bipartisan image by reaching across the aisle in a hyperpartisan political landscape. He deserves credit for continuing to trust his gut and doing what he thinks is right, recognizing that it’s impossible to please everyone.
For most presidents, their first real foray into being viewed “as president” starts with the transition. In George H.W. Bush’s case, that transition was an opportunity for him to step out of Ronald Reagan’s shadow. Reagan had been a largely popular president, and as his vice president, Bush had run on a platform that was in some ways maintaining the status quo. It was a “friendly takeover.” But a takeover, no matter how friendly, is still a takeover, and we intended to hit the ground running.
One of the ways Bush demonstrated a different approach from his predecessor was by reaching out early to communities that may have felt unwelcome in the previous administration – such as the environmental, education, minority, and disability communities. The transition and the early days of the administration were not marked by eloquent speeches or witty soundbites – rather, we hoped to demonstrate Bush’s open-ness by strategic meetings with representatives of those same groups and others. As a communications guy, even though I’ve always believed that words matter, actions do speak louder than any speech – and I believe President Bush felt the same way. President Reagan was often called, “the great communicator.” President Bush did not see himself as a great orator – he would often write in the margin of a draft speech “too flowery.” He felt he’d be judged by his actions not his words. We often had lively debates about that, as I thought the two went hand in hand.
When I attended my first senior staff meeting on Monday, January 22, 1989, I was not at my brilliant best. Imposter syndrome was in full throttle, and I was just one of the scores of staffers trying to get into a rhythm, while acclimating to expecting the unexpected. That was pretty much the case every day in those first few months…running from fire to fire, jotting down speech revisions on index cards and frantically updating TelePrompTers in real-time. But one consequential moment of this president’s first 100 days came on day 63, and that would be the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
On March 22, 1989, the Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. By all accounts, a crisis for any presidency – but especially for one predicated on building relationships with the environmental community. I suggested the president go to Alaska and capture the moment. That idea was shot down by others who felt it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t have the confidence in those early days of the administration to argue the point with those who had more experience. In retrospect I believe I was right, and I regret not pushing harder for my conviction. In the end, President Bush didn’t get many points for “sounding” concerned about that environmental catastrophe. Words do matter, but actions matter more.
Looking ahead from today, Biden’s team would be prudent to capture the momentum he’s had so far and emphasize on the progress they have made. In communications (especially political communications), repetition is critical. I think they know they must highlight that progress now and in the next 100 days – and the 100 days after that – keep building on the foundation he’s set.
This week, we’ll be hearing a lot of pundits pontificating about what Biden’s first 100 days say about his administration, and what it means for his presidency. We all know how hyper-partisan things are today so let’s not belabor that point. Instead of the usual critiques, I’d like to hear them talking about the fact that politics should be “the art of the possible,” and focus their attention on those politicians who are actually trying to get things done. The President has said often that he wants to work across the aisle to achieve things the American people need from their government. Keep saying that, Mr. President. That’s what real leaders do.