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Ahead of Presidents' Day, Virginia Tech expert reflects on the history of presidents in the White House

February 17, 2017

White House

Photo of the White House
Official White House photo

As we commemorate Presidents’ Day, a Virginia Tech professor reflects on the historical context of presidential transitions and the first 100 days in the White House. 

Charles Walcott, professor emeritus of political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, explains that in the early days, the presidency was a tiny operation, with one "secretary" comprising the entire professional White House staff.  Now the staff alone, at 450 more or less, is like a medium-sized business.

About Presidential Transitions

Walcott says the transition into the White House before the 20th century was very different. During the first 100 days in office, most initiatives originated from Congress and it was not expected that new presidents would roll out their programs and the media start keeping score. The idea that most major initiatives come from the president would have been foreign to the Founding Fathers, and to most presidents before Teddy Roosevelt.

  • For George Washington, the central challenge was establishing that the presidency was legitimate and relevant.  For Donald Trump, like virtually all modern presidents, the challenge is to have the administration up and running to try to take advantage of the “honeymoon” period.
  • During FDR's first 100 days, in the depths of the depression, voters were demanding that the new administration do something — anything — to address the economic collapse.  The circumstances were unique and Congress was willing to go along with whatever was proposed.

“Today, the Trump administration, mired in delay and dysfunction, seems to have stalled in its efforts to come up with any significant legislation and executive orders are a pale substitute,” says Walcott.  “All administrations have startup glitches, but most — including Bush 43 and Obama — have moved more surely in at least laying a legislative groundwork.”

About Walcott
Walcott’s research interests focus upon the U.S. presidency, especially as it can be understood through organization theory and on organizational governance generally. Walcott's research over the past two decades has focused principally upon understanding the structural evolution and workings of the White House and its offices. View Walcott’s full bio. 

Interview
To secure an interview with Walcott, contact Shannon Andrea in the media relations office at sandrea@vt.edu or 703-399-9494.

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