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Why Job Creation Won't Come Easy In Obama's Second Term

Chris Kirkham   |   February 11, 2013    7:39 PM ET

When President Barack Obama steps to the podium for Tuesday night's State of the Union address, nearly everyone expects him to lay out proposals to generate job growth.

But nearly everyone also expects Republicans in the House to oppose whatever the president proposes, citing the need to limit spending to close the federal budget deficit. It’s the dynamic that has ruled Washington for the last five years as both parties seek a response to the economic crisis: Should the government spend more money in the short-term to boost demand and reduce unemployment, or immediately tackle a budget deficit that until recently topped $1 trillion?

It seems at times as if the political debate has become divorced from the real-life needs of people.

"A lot of people out there in the real world are scratching their heads and wondering why Washington isn't doing more about jobs, as opposed to budget deficits," said Jared Bernstein, a former Obama administration economist who is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "I'm not saying it's easy, but that's the job of the leader: To explain to folks that we need to do both, and there's a sequencing to it."

Self-imposed deadlines such as the fiscal cliff and the so-called sequester at the end of this month, which would phase in $85 billion worth of cuts through September, have kept Congress laser-focused on the deficit. Obama's last major job-creation initiative, a $447-billion package introduced in September 2011, failed to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

But many economists argue that meaningful job creation must start with the types of programs put forth in that jobs bill -– for example, $175 billion in spending on new roads, modernizing public schools and community colleges and rehabilitating foreclosed homes and businesses.

It's unlikely the dynamic in Congress will soon change. But economists point to the 1990s –- a time of rapid economic growth and declining budget deficits -– as an instructive example for the present. Deficits tend to decline after periods of economic growth, they argue.

jared bernstein economy
Graphic courtesy of Jared Bernstein

"This idea that we're going to squeeze ourselves and in that way get a surplus -– you don't really find that in history," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "We tend to think that cuts are painful, and therefore virtuous, like an athlete who endures pain. Well, cutting off your hand doesn't make you a good athlete."

Republicans have remained steadfast in pushing for deficit reduction. In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute last week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) argued "there is no substitute for getting our fiscal house in order.

"There is no greater moral imperative than to reduce the mountain of debt facing us, our children and theirs," Cantor said. The agenda would focus on "creating the conditions for health, happiness and prosperity for more Americans and their families," and to "restrain Washington from interfering in those pursuits."

Other economists argue that months of budget brinkmanship came after Obama lost control of the message on how to best promote economic recovery.

"The president has not tried very hard, and I think he has been part of the problem," said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning Washington think tank. "He has given too much credence to the notion that we have to do something about the deficit now. Economically, that's completely wrong. The crisis in unemployment is a catastrophe for these families."

Economist Justin Wolfers, now at the University of Michigan, wrote in a blog last summer that he had "never seen the disjunction between the political debate about economics and the consensus of economists be as large as it is today." The disjunction, he wrote, "is incredibly damaging."

Economists said the debate needs to shift toward measures that will produce demand for jobs in the short term, leaving deficits for after unemployment is addressed.

Republicans have panned Obama's 2009 economic stimulus. Economists, however, generally agree that the plan successfully reduced unemployment. More than 90 percent of economists polled by the University of Chicago said the unemployment rate at the end of 2010 was lower because of the stimulus. More than half believed the benefit exceeded the cost, according to the poll.

"The fact is that temporary employment measures, ones that get into the system and get out, don't hurt you on the deficit," said Bernstein, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "There's nothing inconsistent with a plan that would help create jobs in 2013 and 2014, and then get out of the way."

Obama's Second Hundred Days

Chris Weigant   |   August 6, 2009    7:10 PM ET

As the Republican Party sinks slowly in the South....

That line has nothing to do, really, with President Barack Obama's second hundred days in office, but, after re-reading three months of my own columns, it was the one thing I wrote which jumped out at me as a good overview of the zeitgeist of the period.

This is really (technically) the third "look back" column I've written on Obama's term in office so far, so if you'd like you can review what I had to say about Obama's first 168 hours in office, or his first 94 days in office. And for historical context, you can review my look back at the first 100 days of Obama's six immediate predecessors in office (Ford/Carter/Reagan in one, HWBush/Clinton/WBush in the other).

But enough of all this shameless plugging of past columns! Let's get on with the show here. The last time I did this, I divided it up into "the good," "the bad," and "the monumentally stupid (media)." This time, I am going to re-use a Dickens quote I mentioned a few weeks ago, the beginning of A Tale Of Two Cities.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

So our look back at Obama's second 100 days will begin with a short overview, and then move on to the categories: "the best of times," "the worst of times," and "the age of (media) foolishness." Since a four-year presidential term has over 1,400 days in it, I may not be able to come up with new catchy metaphors each time, but that is a problem to be solved in the future. And here, we're supposed to be interested in the past, right? So let's get on with it.


Obama's Second 100 Days -- An Overview

I've always been confused why the media goes berserk about rating a president's "first 100 days," but then just stops counting after the first milestone. This, to a statistician, would be known as a "zero dimensional data array" -- one data point, to be exact. If you don't re-test the sample on a regular schedule, how are you supposed to compare it to anything?

So when I wrote about Obama's first hundred days, I marked my calendar so I wouldn't miss his second, which falls tomorrow (at the time this column is published, Obama will have been in office almost exactly 199 days, even though I am aware that everyone else counts differently and would count today as Day 200).

Obama's second hundred days were not as productive as his first, but not by a whole lot. The flurry of activity Obama generated in Washington in his first three months in office was, in wonk-speak, "unsustainable" -- since everyone knew he'd have to slow down eventually. But while Obama has indeed slowed the pace, he is still getting more done in each month than most presidents manage in a good year. Now, of course, he has set his sights on one massive issue, which tends to push everything else off to the side a bit, but if he is successful in his health care reform efforts it will be so big it will go a long way to defining his entire presidency (or, optimistically, his first term).

As I mentioned last time, the "100 days" benchmark was one set by Napoleon himself, which ended with the Battle of Waterloo. I mention this because one Republican was caught in a "Washington gaffe" (speaking the truth inadvertently), saying that Republicans are mobilizing against healthcare reform because they really, really want it to fail and become "Obama's Waterloo."

The jury on this, of course, is still out. We may have the answers after Obama's third hundred days, but for now it remains the biggest issue being fought over in the boxing ring of American politics.

But other things happened in the past three months than just the health care fracas. Let's take a look at some of them.


The best of times

(This technically happened in the first hundred days of Obama's term, but since I jumped the gun and wrote an article titled "Obama's First 94 Days" instead, I have to at least mention it here...) Republican Senator Arlen Specter jumps the aisle and declares he's now a Democrat. This will prove crucial later (if Al Franken ever gets seated), since the balance of power in the Senate will now effectively be 60-40 in favor of the Democrats. Sixty, as we all know in the political world of wonkdom, equals "filibuster-proof majority" -- if you can get them all to vote the same way, that is.

Obama continues to address the American people as adults, and from what I can tell, The People appreciate this respect. Of course, there are still those afflicted with Obama Derangement Syndrome, but maybe if we pass health care reform we can do something about that. Ahem.

Obama has been talking less (or at the very least believing less) about "bipartisanship" as he faces one of the most partisan bunch of Republicans Congress has ever seen -- which is saying a lot, I might add. The reality of their brick-wall strategy is finally beginning to sink in to the White House, and we're seeing a lot less of the "invite them over for drinks" sort of buddy-buddy photo-ops which Obama tried in his first 100 days. One wonders if he'll still be going through these sorts of motions in Year Three, or Year Four.

The president was given a political gift at the beginning of his second 100 days in office, when Supreme Court Justice David Souter announced he was stepping down. This allowed Obama a choice for the Supreme Court, and one that shouldn't have been all that contentious, since a liberal was stepping down (to be replaced, everyone fully expected, by another of Souter's ilk). More on this later.

Of course, Obama was attacked for his choice of nominee for the high court before he had even made up his mind. No real surprise there. But picking a Latina for his nominee was an absolutely brilliant (if somewhat expected) move. This was a two-for-one, since she is a woman and also a minority (who both turned out in droves to help Obama get elected). Losing Latino support is like a wood-frame building getting eaten by termites for the Republican Party. Allow me to explain that, so it is not misunderstood. Termites do their destructive work (for the most part) invisibly. And eventually, if untreated, they cause the building to collapse. The termites, in this example, are the racist and anti-immigrant forces within the Republican Party. Who, naturally, demanded that GOP Senators vote against Sotomayor. While I am writing this before the actual vote, it will be interesting indeed to see which Republicans vote for her in the end. Because, long-term, losing all Latino support could turn even Texas a very nice shade of Democratic blue. So, as I said, this was a brilliant move for Obama.

Obama gets a budget blueprint through Congress on schedule. If you don't think this is an astonishing achievement, then you don't know much about how Washington works. Of course, this isn't the actual budget, which consists of about a dozen "appropriations" bills later in the year, but Obama's second 100 days end up fairly positively on this front as well, as the House passes all of these before their August break. The Senate still lags a bit, but manages to pass a few. Passing a budget on time is really BIG news in Washington, but only if you're a real wonk about the ins and outs of the legislative process.

Obama signs a credit card reform bill, which passes the House 357-70, with 105 Republicans voting for it (how's that for bipartisanship?). Although weaker than it could have been, this is the first time in a long long time such legislation has made it into law, so it's a true accomplishment for Obama.

The House passes a cap-and-trade energy bill, but it's future is uncertain over in the Senate.

An important milestone was reached in Iraq, as U.S. troops pull out of the cities on time for the end-of-June deadline. To give credit where credit is due, this was largely laid out by President Bush in the Status Of Forces Agreement signed last year, but the fact that the milestone came and went successfully can be chalked up to President Obama.

Obama had a sticky situation with a huge collection of photos which documented Americans torturing prisoners. He waffled a bit, and then in the end decided to block their release. This didn't earn him any points with his base, but did earn him a lot of points with the CIA and the Pentagon.

Obama managed to get the health care industry heads to a table, for a meeting that was largely a photo op. This meeting is mentioned in the next section, as well, though, I should warn you.

Congress meets Obama's deadline of Memorial Day to pass bills on military procurement and the credit card bill mentioned earlier. These sorts of "deadlines" are always a bit of a political stunt (and gamble, it should be added), but the fact that Congress jumped through this hoop was indeed a feather in Obama's cap.

Hillary Clinton extends some benefits to gay employees at the State Department. But all is not exactly coming up roses for Obama with the gay rights movement, as we'll explore later. But, as a result of the friction between the White House and the gay rights leaders, they all held a sit-down and a photo-op about a week later, which did soothe a few ruffled feathers.

Analog television, or "the way teevee has worked since the dawn of time -- you know, when Regis Philbin first appeared on-screen," died. Every television made before very recently stopped working. But surprisingly, the government's "$40 for a digital converter" program, as well as the extension of the changeover by a few months, made this a fairly smooth transition for all. At least, no overwhelming problems were reported on my television... hmm... wait a minute....

Thankfully, that last item meant no more of the eight hundred million ads on television telling us all analog TV was about to die, which became more annoying than the transition itself.

Obama fulfills a campaign promise and gives a wingding of a speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt. This goes a long way toward changing America's image in both the region, and the world itself. Obama accomplishes this singlehandedly, one of the shining moments for him in his second 100 days.

On a much, much smaller scale, Obama was about as endearing as a politician can get when he -- during a townhall meeting -- wrote a note for a fourth-grade girl, excusing her from class that day, and then personally made sure she got the note.

On health care reform, two committees in the House pass the same bill, and later the third and final committee gets its act together on a separate bill. The Senate gets a bill out of Teddy Kennedy's committee, but lags on Max Baucus' committee. This is not as far as Obama would have hoped to be at this point, but it's a lot farther than Clinton got, so that's something, at least.

Obama, unlike the hotheads in Congress, is a lot more circumspect in his comments on the fiasco surrounding the Iranian "election." This, although not a lot of people saw it at the time, was the correct thing to do.

Obama gives a fairly good press conference on health care reform in June. Light on specifics, though, which we'll talk about in a bit.

Senator Al Franken finally gets seated. This officially sets the Senate at 58 Democrats, 2 Independents, and 40 Republicans. While the Independents caucus reliably with the Democrats, the absence of two Democratic senators for health reasons (Kennedy and Byrd) becomes much more crucial. Both Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and outgoing Senator Norm Coleman (who are both Republicans) do the right thing in the end, and allow Franken to be seated without further delay.

One of the best things Obama has going for him in the later part of his second 100 days is the fact that healthcare reform proponents have been guarding his left flank by running very effective ads in the home districts of recalcitrant Democratic members of Congress, to pressure them on their votes. Obama leaks that he doesn't think it's a good idea, but secretly he's got to be cheering them on.

Obama makes barely a ripple in the news by revitalizing the idea of nuclear arms reduction with the Russians -- something that would have been front-page news for weeks, if not months, not twenty years ago. How times change.

Which brings up a broader point: Obama has done a wonderful job, for the most part, of staying above the "24-hour news cycle" mentality when dealing with the media. Much to the media's consternation, of course. This is indeed a good, good thing.

Obama photo-op damage control (the "beer summit") goes surprisingly well, on all fronts.

Obama's poll numbers, while admittedly post-honeymoon, may indeed be ticking up in the past week or so. Too early to accurately predict whether this will become a new trend or not.

But the crowning achievement on Barack Obama's second 100 days has got to be Sonia Sotomayor becoming our next Supreme Court Justice. Souter stepping down at the beginning of this period was one bookend to Obama's second 100 days, and Sotomayor being confirmed by the full Senate provided the second bookend to this period.


The worst of times

This is running a bit long, so I'm going to adopt a snappier style for these bullet points. Fair warning.

Obama continues to disappoint on national security campaign promises.

In many ways, the Obama Doctrine on national security is a continuation of the Bush Doctrine on the same issues. This is disillusioning to many who strongly supported Obama on the campaign trail and believed him back then.

Obama shows absolutely zero inclination, for instance, to support any sort of "Truth Commission" to look into the Bush administration's misdeeds while in office.

Obama is beginning to appear a bit naive on the whole "bipartisanship" issue. Everyone else knows by now that the Republican Party has staked its future electoral chances on destroying Obama's agenda, but the only one who hasn't seemed to cotton on to this is Obama himself. Of course, it could all still be an act for the cameras, but who knows at this point?

Obama is shying away from issues he said he'd "champion" on the campaign trail. The most public of these boiled over with gay rights supporters during this period, who are beginning to wonder "If not now, when?" about their pet issues. Obama has not shown a lot of progress (or even support, for that matter) on repealing either "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" or the federal Defense Of Marriage Act. And DADT and DOMA are core issues for a lot of gays who believed Obama when he said he'd be their "fierce advocate." The advocacy, to be honest, isn't looking all that fierce. This boiled over at a scheduled gay rights Democratic fundraiser, but Obama does deserve credit for smoothing things over soon afterwards. Not much credit, but some.

The credit card reform bill, while it passes on Obama's schedule, leaves oodles of time for the banks to hike everyone's rates before it takes effect. Which they promptly do.

The Republican playbook on healthcare reform from none other than framing guru Frank Luntz is leaked before the whole battle even begins. Sadly, Democrats ignore this en masse even though intrepid bloggers were warning them of the seriousness of the opposition back then (ahem).

Obama's refusal to release the torture photos hurts him with his base.

The healthcare industry leaders photo-op results in a smoke-and-mirrors promise from them, which (mere days later) they publicly back down from.

Obama's White House is more transparent than Bush's -- but that's not saying a lot. It's nowhere near as transparent as Obama promised it would be from the campaign trail, that's for sure.

Obama punts on allowing needle exchange to combat AIDS in budget legislation.

Single-payer supporters are not only the only people not given "a seat at the table" in the healthcare reform debate, Senator Max Baucus actually has some doctors arrested for demanding to be heard by his committee. Not exactly a good thing.

In a setback for Obama, Congress refuses to allow funding for the closing of Guantanamo.

"Senator" Roland Burris (sorry, but the quotes have been earned, I feel, at this point) continues to embarrass the Senate seat that Barack Obama used to hold. At least he won't be running for election next year (that is not a typo, as -- again -- I cannot use the term "re-election" here).

Speaking of Democratic senators who are a "worst of times" for Obama, I have two more words: Max Baucus.

There has been a disturbing reluctance from Obama to take any side in the healthcare reform debate, which is beginning to hurt him. His press conference on the subject made no real news, because Obama didn't offer any (in his words) "bright lines in the sand" on the subject. This is beginning to be seen as a real lack of leadership on the issue, and Obama doesn't even seem aware of this ebbing support. Which, like I said, is disturbing.

Rahm Emanuel has leaked a few things to the media (or been the subject of leaks) which show him to be much more willing to compromise so much that he gives the store away, just to put a bill on Obama's desk to be signed. This bears watching closely in the future.

By refusing to deal with a lot of national security questions -- especially any dealing with his predecessor's term in office -- Obama is going to face a constant "drip drip drip" of these things being slowly made public. This also bears watching in the future.

Obama, in his most recent primetime press conference, says a cop "acted stupidly," which -- even if said cop did indeed act stupidly -- is a bad thing for a president to say to the nation, on quite a few levels.

Obama ends his second hundred days with his approval ratings down. The month of July was particularly bad for him, when his "honeymoon" period definitely ended. Poll-watchers can find further details at my ObamaPollWatch site, which admittedly still needs a lot of work.


The age of (media) foolishness

This is the part of the program where we examine not what was actually important during the past 100 days, but rather what the mainstream media told us was important. There's a definite difference between those two, it should be noted. A chasm the size of the Grand Canyon, actually. So here, in very abbreviated fashion, is what the mainstream media considered crucially important during this time period.

The H1N1 flu's gonna kill everyone, probably by next Tuesday.

Having a robust public health system is absolutely unconnected with that previous item, so please don't try to connect any dots here.

Obama is a socialist.

Empathy in a judge is a bad thing. As a matter of fact, "empathy" itself is probably a bad thing.

Only lefty judges are ever "activist."

Obama is a racist.

Illegal immigrants are gonna kill everyone with the flu, Obama is insane not to immediately shut the border with Mexico.

Pulling troops out of Iraq was Obama's decision (it wasn't, it was the SOFA under Bush).

Pelosi picks fight with CIA, therefore Pelosi is wrong because the CIA would never never lie to anyone, much less Congress. Where do people get these crazy ideas?

What's that? The CIA actually did lie to Congress? Sorry, no time to cover that story.

GOP votes (not) to change name of Democrats to the "Democrat Socialist Party." Lefty bloggers are massively disappointed at losing this prime chance to ridicule Republicans.

"Tea parties" are the most important American political protest, ever, and must be covered wall-to-wall.

Did we mention that the flu's gonna kill everyone?

Obama's a fascist, and will take over all private industry, likely by Christmas.

Robots are the only acceptable nominees for the Supreme Court.

How the heck could ANY "wise Latina woman" EVER do anything better than ANY white man? Tommyrot! The very idea is simply pre-POS-terous! In an unrelated -- totally unrelated -- story, the last minority voter has officially left the Republican Party.

Even though there's been an ongoing gigantic donnybrook of a fight in the RNC, it is always "the Democrats who are divided," as far as the media's concerned. Republicans fighting? Nothing to see here, move along....

The Republicans are all going to vote for healthcare reform if you pay for it by raising middle-class taxes and tax employer health benefits. [Editor's note: this one still makes me laugh out loud.]

Quoting Senator Jeff Sessions' belief that Sotomayor is a racist during her Senate hearing is newsworthy. Mentioning the fact that Sessions was previously turned down for a judgeship -- because of his racist comments on the job -- by the very same committee is not, so please don't bring it up.

Isn't everyone dead yet from the flu? It's coming, so be very afraid.

Obama proves that he would, indeed, kill a fly.

If a female senator demands to be addressed as "Senator," we should all make fun of her for doing so.

A thankful pause, while a Republican politician publicly implodes: Mark Sanford goes to South America. Or nude hiking. Or something.

Another thankful pause, for the gift that just keeps on giving: Sarah Palin!

Michael Jackson was more important than any human being who lived in the 20th century, and deserves news coverage on this scale.

President Obama appears to check out a young girl's rear end -- which is more important than talking about reducing nuclear weapons.

Even though it is a foregone conclusion Sotomayor will be confirmed, media goes crazy looking for drama in Senate hearings.

Obama's going to kill granny. By next Tuesday. And he won't even be using the flu.

Speaking of which, the flu's gonna kill everyone.

We can't let government takeover Medicare!

Obama was born in Kenya. Oh, and the world is flat. And we faked the moon landing. And John F. Kennedy was assassinated by John Lennon. Or something. More "birther" coverage!

The Dow Jones climbing above 9,000 has nothing to do with the economy, which is bad by the way, and will never get better under Obama, and even if it does, it won't be to his credit, so there!

Obama's comment about the Gates arrest was more important than the other 98 percent of the press conference, which was on (yawn) healthcare reform. This just in... Americans think a comedian is the most trustworthy news broadcaster in America. Of course, these two could not possibly be related items, right?

Obama getting together to talk things out with two guys over a beer is the equivalent of a "summit" between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Breathless reports on the brands of beer to be drunk will run on the late news, so stay tuned!

People standing up and yelling at townhall meetings is more newsworthy than the actual issues involved.

Cash for clunkers is a failure because it was too popular.

Oh, and, of course, the flu's going to kill us all, by noon tomorrow.


Chris Weigant blogs at:


The Omnipresent President

James Moeller   |   May 13, 2009    4:06 PM ET

He's everywhere, or at least it seems that way. It's hard to imagine a President who has dominated the airwaves, editorial pages and digital landscape more than Barack Obama in his first 105 days (even in our celebrity-obsessed culture, it's unprecedented).

He's on the cover of New York Times Magazine (again), he bounds into the White House Briefing Room to confirm the resignation of the Justice Souter, he announces the bankruptcy of Chrysler and he personally welcomes Senator Arlen Specter to the Democratic Party. And that was just the end of last week.

He indeed appears to be everywhere, doing everything. While there's been criticism and concern about him taking on too much, there is no denying that he is dominating the stage like no one before him.

And yet by traditional measures, he's been no more visible than his two most recent predecessors. According to the New York Times, in their first 100 days Bill Clinton held 13 news conferences while Obama held 12. In his first 100 days, George W. Bush held 197 public events, while Obama held 187. And despite what has felt like a saturation of the airwaves, Obama gave two nationally televised broadcasts -- exactly the same number as Bush and one fewer than Clinton.

All of this begs the question: Why does it seem as if Obama is everywhere all the time, if he's really not?

Is it a fawning media that critics claim fell in love with him during the campaign and now can't help themselves as they focus on every action big and small - from Bo to Bailouts - in creating a truly larger than life President?

Maybe. A Washington press corps fatigued by eight years of obfuscation passed off as "message discipline" during the Bush years is undoubtedly enjoying a new approach and better access. And there is always a bit of a media honeymoon with a new president, although it is truncated these days (see President Clinton and gays in the military on Day 9).

Perhaps it's the fact that there are crises on so many different fronts - the economy, the auto companies, Afghanistan, swine flu - that the President is addressing (seemingly personally). These are big issues that demand public attention. While both Clinton and Bush took over in the midst of mild recessions, neither had the magnitude of immediate challenges Obama faces.

There is of course the historic nature of his presidency as the first African-American president, which coupled with his youth, energy and oratorical skills make a compelling story.

Chances are it's a combination of all of the above that have worked together to create the omnipresent President.

Whatever the cause, he clearly relishes it and uses his ability to dominate the stage to his great advantage. He makes his opposition seem small and petty by comparison (although given the state of his opposition, perhaps that's not such an accomplishment). They shrink as he takes dramatic action and tackles big issues while they focus on grainy details. As he elevates these issues to major topics of coverage he draws support and puts his opponents on the defensive from the outset.

There are risks, of course, to being omnipresent. There is the threat of over saturation that may lead the media, Congress and voters to tune him out simply because we've heard and seen him so often

There is also the very real risk that he comes to own all of these issues in the public's eye and when one or more of them worsens, he will bear the brunt of criticism and, worse, disappointment.

While these outcomes could hobble his still young presidency, they are risks he's obviously willing to take given the potential payoff.

Days 641 and 1376

Bob Franken   |   April 29, 2009   10:02 AM ET

Pity the poor news media. Their hysteria over the Swine Flu disrupted all their elaborate plans for overcovering Barack Obama's first hundred days.

Not that it put a stop to them but things can get confusing when a contrivance is interrupted, particularly when it doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot. It's mainly another drum that cable news can beat relentlessly. Now we have two we can overdo.

Don't worry, there will be plenty of 100-day analysis, more than enough. After all, it's the opportunity for all media, credible and wildly incredible, to tell us what it all means...real and wacko.

So on this hundredth day for the new president, in 2009 A.D., which, in the new Obamian calendar is the year 1, A.B., we will all go bonkers dissecting an administration that hasn't really had a chance to do much more than talk the talk.

We'll have a much clearer idea how things have gone on Day 641 in 2 A.B., when we come up to that other planned media event -- the off-year election. And, of course, Day 1,376, when President Obama presumably runs for a second term.

By that time, we will probably look back at what the pundits said at the 100-day mark and laugh. Actually, we won't do that because a big advantage of being a pundit is that no one remembers for even a 100 seconds what we said.

We will recall everything that President Obama said, if, for no other reason, than we will be reminded of it ad nauseoum in all the campaign adds.

On the 641st day and the 1,376th, we voters get to weigh in on the Obama administration's performance, or least how the two sides spin it.

Will he have been able to lead the steep climb out of our economic Hell and gain enough enforcement power to pry the stranglehold that the rich and powerful few have over the rest of us?

Will he have disentangled us from the foreign policy and national security disasters that are not only a result of a bungling previous administration, but misguided jingoism of many decades? Will his early moves end being all talk and no action?

For that matter, will he be able to build on a good start and have any luck rebuilding the burnt bridges with the Muslim world, actually with most of the world?

Will he have presided over desperately needed change in our medical delivery system, or will the nation's health still be in the hands of uncaring profiteers?

While we're on the topic of profiteers, will all the polluters finally stop co-opting the word "green" and pretending that their corporation opposed global warming before opposing global warming was cool? Will they now join the administration in ambitious efforts to rescue the environment, and will President Obama have the skill needed to convince Americans we can't continue destroying the world?

Speaking of a toxic atmosphere, will we have had a chance to force the White House people to release the memos that describe the internal debate over the release of the torture memos?

What about the opposition? Will the Republicans still be screaming "SOCIALISM" and running against the French? Will anybody remember Sarah Palin besides Tina Fey? Will the party have come up with a candidate who doesn't carry more baggage than a bellman?

What kind of surprises lie ahead? Which is a really dopey question that we can't really answer because they wouldn't be surprises, now would they?

Actually, surprises can dominate a presidency, sometimes distort it. 9/11 is the obvious example. And already we've seen the piracy mini-crisis, and now Swine Flu, as indicators of how an administration reacts when it's blindsided.

Also, while Arlen Specter is probably not thrilled at being grouped with Swine Flu, his party switch of expedience will provide a test on how well the Democrats in the White House and Congress can take advantage when something unexpected comes their way... or how they'll blow it.

The Specter switch certainly was a test of the ability of the White House and Democratic operatives, which they passed with flying colors. They took full advantage of Senator Specter desperate adherence to the two rules of politics: "First get elected" and "Second get re-elected".

Those are the ultimate tests of a politician's success. While, obviously, they're not necessarily the best way to ultimately gauge a government, you can't govern if you're not in office. And back to Barack Obama, let's have a ball with all the huge attention paid to the 100-day marker, even though it's just fluff.

How bad could it be? It's not that we've had nothing to talk about.
In fact, we've been inundated with "All Obama all the Time" coverage.

Is the real importance of the 100-day milestone that it signals an end to such a single focus. I wouldn't bet on that, but as the days accumulate, the results of this presidency will too, and at some point, we need to spend more time on accountability than personality. Am I right or wrong?

It occurs to me that quite a few are puzzling over what "A.B." is supposed to mean. It can be whatever you'd like. It can stand for "After Barack", of course. Or "After Bush", which is what the Obama people have made the hundred days all about.

As for the Swine Flu, we can only hope we're not still covering that after 100 days. Given the singular focus on Barack Obama, we should know by then whether he personally ended that crisis so can return to his more mundane problems like the world economic collapse. And we can do our 200-Day stories.

Maybe the White House can mark that occasion by arranging a special photo op flight of Air Force One. What d'ya think?

It'll certainly be brought up as we approach days 641 and 1376.

The First 100 Days and Guns

  |   April 29, 2009    9:51 AM ET

Read More:

Getting our Game Back: The First Hundred Days

Lorelei Kelly   |   April 29, 2009    3:00 AM ET

If we kill people, we lose the war. The most significant achievement of the Obama Administration thus far is a consistent and systematic understanding that security as we know it has fundamentally changed. Today, legitimacy (having the moral authority to lead) is getting as much attention as containment (dominate, isolate, destroy) in our strategic plans. Communicating a new framework about how to keep Americans safe is no small challenge in a political environment that has suffocated normal and healthy dialogue about many issues. Number one among them is public conversation about the role of the military in American democracy. And secondarily, the role of the military in our national security. Legitimacy requires a sense of shared expectation and uniform rules. This has huge implications for everything from defense budget priorities to criticism of allies like Israel--because most of the time the use of force is anathema to legitimacy.

We must have this conversation ultimately....for it not only will determine the soul of the American military (our most beloved institution) it will determine the fate of our nation. We can't privatize our way out of asking hard questions about what the military should be doing. We can't be persuasive through hardware dominance. We look foolish and unconvincing when we say one thing and do another. We can't have it both ways.

Here's another way to put it. Today, we have finally recognized that we're moving away from a world where safety was linear and predictable and where weapons technology provided a fix --to a world that is much more random and chaotic and where skilled human beings are the answer. Intentional communication and strategies for participation are the art and science of violence prevention. The Marine Corps at Quantico just conducted a week-long wargame on conflict prevention. What should the military's role be in this new world? The military hates surprises. It prepares based on what it experiences. But only civilian elected leaders can turn their experience into a security strategy.

The metrics that the military uses to prioritize are shifting to recognize trans-national threats. For example, contagious ideology thrives where social and political vacuums exist. Modern doctrine views the safety of people across borders to be as important as the safety of people within borders. Counter insurgency is one operational example of these priorities--where only about 1/3 of the activities require traditional military tools like shooting guns (called "kinetic"). The Marines are the most progressive of the services--and their lens on prevention represents a major shift, but there is no guarantee it will be followed through with systemic change. And no matter how happy we are that the military is engaged in prevention, it should not be the lead agency on these activities. For us to be legitimate, civilians must fill that role.

Some illustrations from an Army friend: In the 1940s military planners scoped out threat scenarios based on questions like: Where is their navy fleet? Why is their Army missing from the Polish border? Is it doing an exercise? Better find it. Arms control treaties with their acronym soup and bizarre permutations of mutual suicide were the ultimate example of countable criteria. Today, additional criteria are less countable, but still measurable. Is there a court system that renders satisfied judgments? Are human rights activists being murdered? How many girls are in school? Was the last election fair? Who has clean drinking water?

To see if our elected representatives in Congress are listening to the advice of civilian and military professionals--watch what happens to the Obama-Gates defense budget. Even though it is 4% higher than Bush's budget--its intentions are clearly moving resources away from Cold War weapons platforms and toward policies that require a different strategy and far more civilian capacity. At long last. But Congress is already making moves to put some of the eliminated weapons programs back into the war supplemental. Unless we somehow develop a domestic constituency for modern security priorities that can rival the defense industry, these congressional antics will not change. (Hillary supporters--if you want to see her become the most successful Secretary of State in history--organize her political base into this state by state network) And federally funded state universities, would you please come up with some defense economy conversion research for your congressional delegations?

If our security priorities were aligned with legitimacy as a security strategy we would demand that the US Senate pass a treaty omnibus much like it passes the defense budget year after year...rushed through with urgency and lots of patriotic salutes. I'm not kidding. Law of the Sea, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, International Criminal Court, Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). They've been debated incessantly. Pass them all in one fell swoop. We would be safer overnight.

When President Obama says that our ideals will make us stronger, he's rebuilding our moral authority. When he speaks about America having the obligation to lessen the nuclear threat through cooperative efforts--he's invoking a sense that the world has taken us up on our belief in the individual right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And we need to deliver some part of that. Strategies of persuasion are put forward, strategies of coercion kept in the back pocket. As it should be. Framing, re-framing, convening, constant communication, taking early risks--these are all things that Americans are good at. The sunk cost of the Bush years was largely paid with our political capital--relationships, cooperation based on self-interest, predictable patterns, transparency,respect for rule of law. I'm waiting to see if our new strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan will cause fewer civilian casualties. And I'm waiting to see whether or not we really, actually leave Iraq. I would do backflips for a truth commission with subpoena power on use of torture. I really like our President's constant recitation of a new vision for America in the world. This vision is so compelling that it makes occasional slip ups--like invoking "crippling sanctions for Iran" seem weird and out of place...President Bush knocked us off our game. President Obama is getting it back. I give the first hundred days a B plus.

p.s. I'm willing to allow grade inflation in exchange for a speech about basic civics and the role of the military in American democracy...perhaps in another 100 days?

ObamaHealth: The Prognosis at 100 Days

Richard (RJ) Eskow   |   April 28, 2009   10:10 PM ET

We can find out which medical treatments work best with "clinical effectiveness research" (CER). Newt and Hillary both love it - but some people are against it just because the President supports it. They say these measurements would be too "arbitrary." Well, speaking of arbitrary measurements ...

It's Day 100. That's early to draw any conclusions, but people will anyway (bringing to mind Henny Youngman's opening line, delivered as he walked out on stage: "How do you like me so far?") A fairer measurement might be: How have these 100 days measured up against expectations? Giving a single grade would be too arbitrary, so we'll give several instead, like doctors do when they check your vital signs:

Building Public Support

So, has the President been effective at articulating the need for health care reform? Has he been building a broad base of support for the idea that we need to change the system? What, are you kidding? This is Obama we're talking about. When we talk about communications we're in his house - and it shows in the polling numbers.

You'd think that the economic crisis might lead people to conclude "we can't afford health reform right now." While that's a familiar refrain in Congress, the public's singing another tune. An April poll by the Kaiser Foundation shows that "59% of U.S. residents believe health care reform is now more important than ever," while only 37% say that "reform would be too costly to attempt during the current economic climate."

That's a home run for the President.

How did he achieve these numbers? First, by adopting a position forcefully supported by Peter Orszag (according to Ryan Lizza's New Yorker profile): that health reform, if done correctly, is deficit reduction. The New Yorker piece describes Orszag's "obsession" with "the findings of a research team at Dartmouth showing that some regions of the country spend far more money on health care than others but that patients in those high-spending areas don't have better outcomes than those in regions that spend less money." That would be the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, designed by Dr. John Wennberg. It's a critical tool for understanding how healthcare works in this country.

Orszag's fascination with this kind of research has pushed ideas like CER and results-based doctor reimbursement to the forefront, and Obama's been able to communicate the notion that reform can be cost-effective, despite scare-mongering on the topic from his opponents. That's a big win.

Grade: A+.


It wasn't supposed to be this way. By now Health Czar Tom Daschle was supposed to have used his DC experience, his insight into the healthcare system, and the power vested in him by the President to launch health reform in a broad and dramatic way. But the Daschle nomination was derailed and the HHS spot stayed open. Things should start to pick up with today's news that Kathleen Sebelius' nomination is moving forward.

Progress in filling top health positions has been slow, as the Washington Post points out. This was inevitable, given the delay in filling the top slot, and it should change now. And while there was some grumbling in the press about empty seats during a potential epidemic, there's nothing to suggest that the interim players haven't been covering things just fine.

Power is always decentralized in Washington, and even more so when the President is a consensus-builder by nature and by choice. In the absence of a 'czar,' influence has coalesced around players like Peter Orszag and Sen. Max Baucus. Orszag has been exploring some of the more interesting corners of health policy research, while Baucus has defined core principles for the Democratic leadership.

Then there's Ezekiel Emanuel, the physician who's also a martial arts black belt (thus capable of controlling both supply and demand for his services). Dr. Emanuel (yes, he's Rahm's brother) is on Orzsag's staff. He's a contrarian and innovator by nature. He'll probably serve as an idea generator and internal gadfly.

The President also appointed David Blumenthal, M.D., as his Health IT Coordinator. Dr. Blumenthal's a health policy expert, not a techie, so he'll probably focus on building an information base for policy objectives. With them all, Obama seems to be building a healthcare team that's strong on imagination and execution.

Grade: B (but expected to rise soon).

Policy Development

We're not much closer to a health policy blueprint than we were on Inauguration Day. Is that a flaw? Not necessarily. Health analysts used to speak of the three qualities of medical care delivery as structure, process, and outcome. Most people focus on structure and outcome, but the President is very much a "process" leader.

We're still in the "process" stage. It began when the President indicated that he'd like to have a consensus bill that includes significant Republican support. While he hasn't withdrawn that statement, he has indicated that he's willing to pass a health bill through the reconciliation process if necessary. That suggests he has basic policy goals he won't compromise, and that he'll override the GOP if necessary to enact them.

What are they? He's not giving specifics yet. He's sketched out broad objectives - rewarding cost-effective medicine, health IT, universal access, and choice - but that's about it. He stood apart from candidates Clinton and Edwards last year in his opposition to health mandates, saying they hadn't been proven necessary to achieve universal coverage. He's not saying that now, and he may have signalled a walk back from that position when he indicated that key reform provisions will be designed in Congress. (Max Baucus supports mandates.)

He's also staying flexible on the "public plan option," which would allow people to buy into a Medicare-like program that would compete with private insurers. As we discussed earlier (in The Sentinel Effect and a radio interview with Bill Scher), these two issues are the defining areas in the struggle to define health reform - both practically and politically. A plan that requires people to buy coverage, but only from private insurers, would be a difficult sell.

Is he behind schedule on defining his health policy? That's the wrong question. He's on a different schedule, one that favors process over policy. He's using the first half of 2009 (or so) to build consensus. If that means leaving critical questions unanswered for now, he's prepared to do that.

Grade: If you want to grade him on outcome already, you don't understand the President.

So where does this leave us? President Obama has not backed down from his commitment to health reform. That means something will be proposed this year, and something will be enacted into law. "Don't talk too soon," said Bob Dylan, "the wheel's still in spin." Turning this process into a meaningful outcome will probably be even harder than the President and his team expect. But it's not impossible - and, as we keep getting reminded, it's needed even more when times are hard.

RJ Eskow blogs when he can at:

A Night Light
The Sentinel Effect: Healthcare Blog

The Obama Administration and the Bankers: 100 Days of Solicitude

Dean Baker   |   April 28, 2009    8:41 PM ET

In most areas of public policy the Obama administration has given the country a sharp and welcome break from the policies of the prior administration. Unfortunately, this is not the case with his financial policy. To a large extent Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has continued the Bush-Paulson "save the banks" first approach.

Geithner has continued policies initiated in the Bush administration whereby the banks received vast amounts of money from the public trough while offering relatively little in return. Most of the executives at these banks continue to earn multi-million dollar compensation packages and the shareholders and bondholders have been enriched at the taxpayers' expense.

It is undoubtedly painful for the public to see their tax dollars going to reward the people who are most directly responsible for the economic crisis. The Wall Street banks played a game of high-stakes poker over most of the last quarter century. In the process, the major actors got incredibly wealthy at the expense of ordinary working people.

Now this game has blown up in their face, effectively bankrupting most of the big players, and bringing the economy down in the process. But rather than leave the bankers to suffer the consequences of their own actions, Geithner and Co. are rushing to the rescue with gigantic buckets of taxpayer dollars.

The rationale for this policy is not clear. We have been warned about an implosion even worse than that created by the Lehman bankruptcy if the government follows normal procedure and puts bankrupt giants like Citibank into an FDIC receivership, as is done all the time with smaller banks.

While Secretary Geithner believed that the system could absorb an uncontrolled Lehman bankruptcy last fall, he is now effectively telling the country that even the controlled failure of a major bank would lead to catastrophe, and that taxpayers should be prepared to spend hundreds of billions and possibly trillions of dollars to keep the zombie banks afloat.

It is hard to understand this logic. First, Geithner, along with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and then Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, were not crazy to believe that the system could withstand an uncontrolled Lehman bankruptcy, even if was in fact a mistake to let Lehman go under. More importantly, we have a number of safeguards now in place to protect against the sort of panic that followed the collapse of Lehman. There seems little justification for continuing to spread the wealth around to those at the very top of the income ladder.

To justify the upward redistribution implicit in the Geithner policy there have also been serious misrepresentations of the state of the financial system. While the banks certainly are not functioning normally, their condition is not the major obstacle to recovery.

Households with good credit have no difficulty whatsoever getting mortgages as a result of the policies of the Fed and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Mortgages are readily available at near record low interest rates. Those with poorer credit histories do have trouble, but this would almost certainly be the case even if the banks were fully solvent.

Large businesses with investment grade credit can readily issue commercial paper through the Fed to deal with their short-term credit needs. In recent weeks, several major firms have also issued bonds at relatively low interest rates, indicating that long-term credit channels are returning to normal for these firms as well.

While smaller and less creditworthy businesses are undoubtedly having more difficulty than usual obtaining credit, this is not the main factor depressing the economy. The basic story is that households are in the process of losing $8 trillion in housing bubble wealth. This has both collapsed housing construction and forced consumers to cut back spending.

The fall in consumer spending is not due to lack of credit or insufficient confidence, it is due to the fact that the average homeowner is losing more than $100k in equity and is now trying to save to make up this lost wealth. There was also a bubble in non-residential real estate, which is now collapsing, further depressing the economy.

In the short-term the only way to make up for the shortfall in demand is with government spending. We will need far more stimulus to make up a gap in spending that is in the neighborhood of $2.5 trillion over a two-year period.

In the longer term we will have to get the trade deficit down to a sustainable level. Moving to more balanced trade will require a large fall in the value of the dollar, which is the key step in correcting our large trade imbalance.

The Obama administration has yet to get serious about setting the long-term economy on a sound footing by bringing the value of the dollar down to a competitive level. Instead it has focused on rescuing the banks with taxpayer dollars. Throwing money at the banks will make the bankers happy - rescuing them from their own incompetence - but it will not set the economy right.

In the area of financial policy the Obama administration gets poor marks for its first 100 days. Instead of a letter grade, we'll just say: "needs improvement."

The First 100 Days -- How Obama Scores on the Nine Qualities of Leadership

Robert Creamer   |   April 28, 2009    6:29 PM ET

At 100 days, the political vital signs of President Obama and his administration are robust. The averages of public polls published by show the president's job approval at 62.2 percent. Sixty-four percent of the voters view him favorably, and only 26.8 percent unfavorably.

More remarkably -- even in the midst of the worst economic downturn in a half-century -- 50.9 percent now think the country is on the right track. That is a massive turnaround in sentiment from the almost 85 percent last October that thought the country was on the wrong track.

What accounts for these terrific numbers? In his first 100 days, Barack Obama has consistently scored very highly on each of the nine qualities that voters use to evaluate leaders.

1). Is Obama on my side? This is the threshold question of all politics. Voters want to know that when the chips are down, a candidate or leader will understand them and stand up for them. Obama has done an outstanding job of communicating empathy for everyday Americans, and willingness to take on special interests on their behalf. His focus on health care, education and energy has demonstrated to average voters that he understands their real world concerns. And his demand for change in the way things are done in Washington resonates with average people who think that those with wealth and power have stacked the "business as usual" deck against them.

On this critical parameter, Obama's only vulnerability has been a nagging fear that his Treasury Department's attempts to rescue the financial system go too far to bail out the Wall Street types, whose sense of entitlement and reckless risk-taking led the country over a financial cliff. The AIG bonus scandal crystallized that feeling. So far Obama has managed to stay on the right side of that divide. It's critical that he stay there.

2). Does Obama have strongly-held values -- or is he just a "typical" politician who does whatever he thinks will help him politically? Voters want leaders who are strongly committed to core values -- and every day they see a President who meets that test. Obama frames everything he says in terms of traditional progressive American values. And he does more than talk. He believes in those values, and his actions reflect it. In his first week of office he ended torture -- no exceptions. He called Americans to a new era of responsibility and sacrifice. He has demonstrated an uncompromising commitment to equality and to the principle that every child should have the same opportunity to live up to their greatest potential.

Every day Obama gives voters a sense that he is centered -- and that he will doggedly defend the things he believes in. That centeredness is one of his most powerful political assets.

3). Is Obama a strong, effective leader? Voters don't just want leaders who are on their side, they want leaders who get things done. Obama's success at moving elements of his program has contributed mightily to the voters' view that the country is on the right track -- and that he is doing a good job. His ability to work with Congress to pass an economic recovery package, his budget, equal pay for women, and expansion of the health care for children have given people a sense that he knows how to get things done. Voters have also watched him succeed in improving America's reputation around the world.

But Obama is keenly aware that in the end it's not just the "sizzle," it's the steak. By this time next year, they will expect to see concrete improvements in their lives. Obama knows he will ultimately be measured by his success in actually improving the economy for everyday Americans. His administration is focused like a laser on making that happen. He said himself, that if he fails to do that he will be a one-term president.

4). Does Obama have Self-Confidence? Voters want leaders who have confidence in themselves. God knows Obama exudes confidence -- genuine confidence, not the kind that morphs into arrogance -- but the kind that allows him to listen to different points of view and then make decisions. It's the kind of confidence that allows him to shake hands with Hugo Chavez and know he's not going to be "taken advantage of."

Obama has the kind of confidence that we loved in the movie character James Bond: cool under fire -- capable of dispatching a dozen bad guys, all without mussing his tuxedo.

The quintessential "self-confidence" moment of his first 100 days came during the episode with the Somali pirates. Right-wing talk show hosts brayed that he was exhibiting a "pantywaist" response to the "crisis." They wanted the kind of bluster and "big talk" they loved from George Bush. Instead, Obama calmly and effectively managed the situation; then when the moment came, Navy snipers took out the pirates with three well-placed shots. Obama looked like Paul Newman's Cool Hand Luke.

5). Does Obama Respect Me? Once people's physical needs are met, there is nothing they want more in life than respect. That's because people are driven by their need for meaning. They want to matter. And the converse is true. Voters never forgive being disrespected.

Barack Obama treats everyone with respect. When he speaks to the American people he speaks to them like adults. Just as importantly, he treats everyone in his life with respect -- his family, his staff, his political opponents, the leaders of foreign governments.

6). Does Obama connect with the voters -- do people like him? Chemistry and personal connection is a huge factor for any political leader. It was one of Bill Clinton's greatest assets -- Al Gore, not so much. On this measure Obama is a star. His smile, his family, Bo the dog, his warmth, his vigor, his story, his basketball. People connect. They love him.

7). Does he have integrity? People want leaders with integrity. Obama started out by insisting that no one is to be hired by his administration who has lobbied in the last two years in an arena in which they would be working. He refused to take money from lobbyists during the campaign. While some of his appointees have had tax problems or other issues, so far at least, no serious scandal involving conflict of interest or foxes guarding chicken coops have yet cropped up in the new Administration.

Just as important is the ethos of Obama's inner circle. Obama's administration is packed with people who have come to Washington to get things done -- to change the country. His people want to make history -- not pad their resumes so they can make money.

8). Does he have vision? Yogi Berra used to say that "if you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there." Voters want leaders who have vision -- who know where they want to take our country over the long run. Especially when it comes to the economy, polls show that voters want their leaders to create a foundation for long-term prosperity -- new "clean energy" jobs, and 21st Century education.

Obama has framed all of his economic initiatives in precisely these terms. Vision for the future is a key element in both in his policy-making and in messaging for this White House.

9). Does Obama inspire me? People want to be inspired by their leaders -- and, of course, Obama delivers like no other president has since John Kennedy.

We mean something very specific when we talk about inspiration. When someone feels inspired, they feel empowered. Inspiration is a sense that you can be more, and do more -- as an individual and as a society. It is a sense of being part of something meaningful that is bigger than yourself, and that you have the ability to play a significant role -- personally -- in making it happen.

On a personal level, of course, great relationships are based on a feeling that you are empowered when you are in the presence of another person. The same is true in politics.

People know instinctively that the feeling of inspiration Obama communicates not only makes us feel good about ourselves -- it also enables us to do more and achieve more than we otherwise would.

The ability to mobilize the American people through inspiration is a major weapon in Obama's arsenal. It will help him be successful at creating a new economy, providing health care for all, and charting a new energy future.

In summary, Obama gets an "A" on every one of the nine qualities that, in my experience, are the most critical measures that voters use to evaluate political leaders.

Of course you might say these parameters don't measure a president's actual accomplishments, only the way he or she is viewed by the voters. I would answer that the chief measure of leadership is the ability to mobilize people in order to make change.

If his first 100 days are an indication of how Barack will perform against these nine measures of leadership, he is poised to be a transformational president.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategis,t and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on

Democracy Hangs in the Balance on Obama's 100th Day

Ben Jealous   |   April 28, 2009    3:52 PM ET

100 Days -- that is how long President Barack Obama has been in office.
100 years ago, no one would have predicted we, as a nation, would have
elected an African-American President. 100 days into the first
African-American President's administration, the Supreme Court will hear
arguments challenging a key provision of the very Act that helped make his
election possible.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, the landmark civil rights statute that
assures an inclusive democracy, is being assailed by far right groups who
are stuck in the 18th Century. Millions of people - white, black,
Hispanic, Asian and Native American - rejoiced in the breakthrough
election of President Obama. It was the shattering of the highest glass
political ceiling and his victory, our victory, was in no small part
because of the doors that were flung open to all Americans to
participate in the electoral process.

The Voting Rights Act's section 5 requires that districts and
jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination submit all
proposed changes to the Department of Justice for approval-and it
prevents hundreds of acts of voter discrimination in every election

Our far right opponents are not resting. Their strategy was to find a
test case from a tiny, virtually all white municipal district in Texas, to
have section 5 - often called the heart of the voting rights act- declared
unconstitutional. Their claim is that we don't need the Voting Rights Act
anymore because we have successfully elected an African American president.

I ask you, if we don't need the Voting Rights Act anymore then why do we
continue to have dialogue and discussion about voter intimidation and
suppression? Why are we hearing about voters of color being purged
and removed from the registration rolls? Why are we still talking about voters
who happen to have a similar name to an incarcerated felon being turned
away at the polls? Why are we still seeing states not complying with federally
mandated voting law changes like the Help America Vote Act and the
National Voter Registration Act? Finally, why are we still seeing racially
polarized voting in those states affected by Section 5?

What they fail to examine is the lack of change in voting patterns
amongst whites in the states covered by Section 5. President Obama
received 47 percent of the white vote in non section 5 states. But in
the states covered under the Act, he only received 26 percent. In
Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, he garnered an average of about
15 percent of the white vote. Obama did among whites than John Kerry
in several of the covered jurisdictions , despite a nationwide Democratic
swing. Race seems the best explanation for this difference ...doesn't look
like we are post racial yet.

As recently as the 2008 elections, counties covered under section 5 were
the scenes of voter intimidation. In Boynton, Florida, people went
through African American neighborhoods stating that anyone who has
outstanding warrants or owes child support or even has an outstanding
traffic ticket would be arrested if they attempted to vote. Police
officers were stationed outside of polling places. Officials in Waller
County Texas, have tried to prevent students at the historically Black
Prairie View A&M University from voting for the past three decades. The
county only abandoned this effort to suppress Black turnout when the
university chapter of the NAACP brought a Section 5 enforcement action.

In other parts of the country, Section 5 has made sure that Hispanic, Vietnamese
and other people of color have had access to a free and fair voting
process. It is obvious that voter intimidation still exists and Section
5 of the Voting Rights Act must remain intact.

Dr. Martin Luther King stated that our lives begin to end the day we
become silent about things that matter. As a nation, we must remain
vigilant as the Supreme Court ponders this case. We don't know yet what
will emerge from this new configuration of the Supreme Court. We can
only hope that they recognize the fundamental value of the basic right
to vote for all Americans, unfettered by the barriers of racism. In
2006, we advocated successfully for this provision to be continued and
the extension was signed by then-President Bush. Now is the time for the Court
to reject this latest threat to realizing our promise of democracy and assure
every American can vote.

Benjamin Todd Jealous is President and CEO of the NAACP

First 100 Days Retrospective: Ford, Carter, Reagan

Chris Weigant   |   April 22, 2009    8:08 PM ET

[Update: Part 2 of this article series, which examines Bush, Clinton, and Bush has now been posted at my site.]

[Update 2: My "Obama's First 94 Days" article is now also available.]

It is "first 100 days" season in Washington. This is when lazy journalists (I include myself in that designation) write about an artificial timeline first instituted for Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. The roundness of the number, and the ease at fashioning a "hook" to your storyline prompts a flood of "100 days" stories for each and every president.

But before I get to writing mine (which will appear this Friday), I'd like to take a look back at Obama's closest predecessors and how the media saw their first 100 days in office. What is striking is how often the media gets it wrong when measuring up new presidents. What seems negative at the time can later be viewed positively by the consensus of history, and vice versa. So all journalists should approach the subject with some humility, and consider how often their snap judgments turn out later to be wrong.

Today's article will look at the first 100 days of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. Tomorrow's article (to be posted at will look at George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. And then Friday I'll jump into the fray and write about Obama's first 100 days, which will likely prove later to be wrong in many ways, when read years from now.


Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford's first 100 days in office do not fall on the normal months of the calendar. This is because he was our only president to enter the office in such a fashion. Ford was named to the vice presidency after the resignation of Spiro Agnew, and then succeeded to the presidency when Richard Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. So Ford's first 100 days ran through the fall of 1974.

Ford's first 100 days are remembered for one sole action -- toasting his own English muffin in the White House kitchen. No, I'm kidding, that was just a photo op to convince America that Ford was not an "imperial" president (which was the image Nixon left office with). Ford will, of course, forever be remembered for pardoning the ex-president he replaced one month after taking office. What most people forget is that at the same time he started the process of also granting amnesty to Vietnam War draft dodgers (which Ford could have done, but was left for Jimmy Carter to actually finish).

Ford faced a daunting array of crises when he took over. Winding down the Vietnam War, an economic meltdown (inflation), and an energy crisis were all on his plate when he was sworn in. But any legislative accomplishments during Ford's first 100 days are buried in the mists of time when stacked up against pardoning Nixon. This is a fancy way of saying: "there's not a lot of data online from 1974 news sources, and I was too lazy to go to the bricks-and-mortar library and look it up." Ahem. But seriously, nothing else Ford did during the time period would mark his presidency (or "mar" his presidency, if you prefer) than Nixon's pardon.

At the time, it caused an outcry. Charges were made that there had been a "quid pro quo" deal worked out in advance between Nixon and Ford -- "pardon me, and I'll resign," in essence. The pardon itself may have doomed Ford's re-election chances, although the relative importance to his 1976 campaign is still debated among political scientists. But it was wildly unpopular when it happened, which is worth remembering as we grade another president on the 100-day scale. Ford, during his first 100 days, became the only sitting president in all American history to voluntarily appear before Congress and give sworn testimony, about the pardon. This shows the level of political outrage the pardon issue caused.

While interesting parallels can be drawn between Nixon and George W. Bush (compare and contrast the torture debate raging today with the prosecution debate over Nixon back then), the most interesting thing, as we look at President Obama's first 100 days, is that history later praised Ford for his pardon. The snap judgments of the day were later turned on their head, even if the pardon did lose Ford re-election. Historians now view the pardon as Ford outlined it at the time: a sincere effort to move beyond the Nixon years, and "heal" America. Ford's "our long national nightmare is over" quote sums up his view that looking forward was better than looking backward. Now where have I heard that line recently? Looking forward rather than looking backward... hmmm.


Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter's election was as much as surprise as Bill Clinton's later turned out to be. A southern Democrat, who rode into town vowing to "change Washington," and who brought in his own people and disdained the way Congress had gotten used to operating.

Carter faced a daunting array of crises when he took over. The economy was in an inflation crisis, the Cold War was at its height, and a continuing energy crisis were all on his plate when he was sworn in.

His first 100 days are now seen as a disaster. He tried to do to much, and he tried to buck the system too much. Many dark warnings about Carter's first 100 days started circulating a month or two ago, when the talking point of the moment was: "Obama's trying to do too much."

There actually are a lot of parallels between Obama's style and Carter's style. The difference is that Obama has gotten some things done already, while Carter at this point just had a lot of proposals -- and a lot of folks annoyed at him. From a Newsweek article published on May 2, 1977 titled "Jimmy So Far":

Near the end of the First 100 Days, Hamilton Jordan listened impassively to the list of interests Jimmy Carter had succeeded in irritating thus far. Business, for his spending. Labor, for his thrift. Liberals, for his caution. Farmers, for his penny-wisdom about grain-price supports. The Democratic Party, for his Simon-purity about patronage. "Can you name one group that's for us?" Jordan asked. "You can't run this country with groups -- that's been part of the problem." A visitor proposed it might be equally risky for Carter to try running the country without them. "We'll see," said Jordan, unperturbed.

Carter is trying, out of a secure sense that he is at one with The People -- and that The People constitute a body larger than the sum of its parts. He has sought to please them by being precisely the sort of President he promised to be: activist in impulse, humane at heart, technocratic by training and frugal till it hurts as keeper of the public purse. He has mounted campaigns of the most gingerly design against inflation and unemployment. He has run a teachy, preachy, out-in-the-open foreign policy, to the affront of the Russians, the bewilderment of some allies -- and the apparent delight of workaday America. He has got his charter to reconstruct the government, and has begun blueprinting its use. And now he has declared his doomsday war to conserve energy -- a high-stakes gamble that could bear heavily on whether the Age of Jimmy is a footnote or a volume in U.S. history.

Carter has been to a surprising degree a foreign-policy President; he spends even more time at it than he needs to, one senior aide thinks, because he is new at it -- and because abroad, more than in Washington, "you can make things happen." He has been trying just that -- has dared the Soviets simultaneously on human rights and arms control, formulated a new Arab-Israeli peace plan out loud, moved toward normal relations with Hanoi and Havana and committed the U.S. heavily to curbing the spread of the bomb. He has run a more personal, more open and more rigorously moral foreign policy than any President in memory, with sometimes untidy results. His selective scoldings on human rights inflamed Idi Amin and antagonized several Latin American allies, and the State Department has been kept busy explaining ad libs by Carter early on and by his United Nations ambassador, Andrew Young, on the most sensitive world issues.

. . .

As the steward of the U.S. economy, Carter has turned out to be rather a conservative -- a surprise only to those who fixed on the populist strain in his campaign rhetoric and tuned out his homilies on wasteful Federal spending. His approach to the stubborn economic lag was moderate from the first -- a two-year, $30 billion package of stimuli -- and even then it took some hard selling by Mondale and economist-in-chief Charles Schultze to bringing him around to the notion of quickfix $50 rebates for practically everybody. His affection for the plan melted when the economy perked up on its own and when Senator Byrd passed along a private warning that he couldn't raise more than 40 votes for the rebate without an all-out White House push. The rebate abruptly died, largely unlamented outside liberal academe. "Why fight and bleed," asked Jordan, "for something you're not sure of anyway?"

. . .

Carter's amber-light policies have pleased (thought not entirely propitiated) corporate America and have distressed some of his own closest aides as a result. One in-house report on "White House Trouble Spots" complained about the rightward tilt of the President's Economic Policy Group -- a body so bankerly that one Jordan operative privately renamed it the Business Policy Group. Carter in fact has been getting conservative advice, with banker Lance and the Bendix Corp.'s Blumenthal safely settled in as one, two in the pecking order, and it is likely to get more conservative still with Carter's consent to monthly meetings with the Federal Reserve's tory chairman, Arthur Burns. Carter insists that his inflation-first strategy does not mean neglecting the unemployed. Still, his own projections show high-level joblessness continuing into 1980, and the AFL-CIO's Lane Kirkland dourly predicts: "There ain't gonna be no full employment here."

The anti-inflation imperative has in some measure banked the Administration's appetite for other sorts of innovation -- at least those sorts that cost money. Carter's people have long lists of initiatives to prove their concern for substance as well as style: the recovery package, a $1.5 billion youth-unemployment program, the critical first reorganization bill, sweeping electoral reform, an emergency natural-gas act and now the escalation of energy saving to nearly a wartime footing. A social-security message is expected before the 100 days are out, and an environmental package soon thereafter....

[Carter's] attack on the Federal bureaucracy will be a long, taxing struggle to remodel the government agency by agency, under the jealous watch of Congress and The Interests at every step. HEW's Joseph Califano is only just completing a set of options on welfare reform for submission to Congress this fall. Tax reform will also hit the Hill by autumn; national health insurance is further distant....

Carter and his Georgians retain their unspoiled belief in government by moral imperative -- the conviction that, if they are right, The People will perceive it and will sweep aside resistance by the Hill, the bureaucracy and the special interests. Their impatience to try has fed Carter's impulse to lay down arbitrary deadlines -- "People aren't secure enough to tell him they need another 30 days," one senior counselor says -- and to move on too many fronts at once. He resisted pleas for a month's delay of the energy package; it accordingly reached Congress log-jammed together with the inflation package, the proposed Department of Energy, and the great water-project purge. "We can't afford to have three or four things on the Hill at once," Jordan winced. "People start trading votes up there, and you increase the danger of losing something."

Jimmy Carter does not like losing anything. He has been in office barely long enough to impose his style on the Presidency and to demonstrate his command of its daily routine. He brings to it a mind and a discipline of tempered steel; an insatiable appetite for work and for fact; a dazzling and till now underappreciated mastery of the mass media; a refreshing habit of plain words and simple manners; the nerve and the will to lead "for a change" -- and an unassailable expectation of his own success. Out of his genius for intimacy with his public, he is no longer quite the stranger he seemed on his arrival in the White House last Jan. 20. Yet he and his Georgians remain outsiders there -- the vanguard of The People, by their own ordination, in the very citadel of The Interests. Carter has had his 100 days to settle into the Presidency, and has by popular judgment done handsomely at it. The 1,300 days still to come will test whether the White House is in fact his home.

Carter, one week into his presidency, wrote the following in his diary: "Everybody has warned me not to take on too many projects so early in the administration, but it's almost impossible for me to delay something that I see needs to be done." Carter, on his first day in office, granted amnesty to the draft dodgers, which Ford had left dangling. But then he picked a fight with Congress over a subject near and dear to John McCain's heart -- pork barrel spending. This led to Congress repeatedly refusing to follow Carter's lead, and his poor relations with Congress were an ongoing weakness for Carter throughout his presidency.

While Obama has not antagonized Congress in the same fashion, it is still striking to see Carter's style when compared to Obama's. The feeling that "the country's behind me" and "change" that Carter used are virtually the same as what Obama uses today. The difference is, to a large part, that Democrats in Congress are now mostly aligned with Obama in their desire to get things done, and therefore Obama has a lot more actual achievements to show for his first 100 days than Carter did. Carter had already had one major bill (a stimulus package) defeated by Congress at this point, while Obama has no comparable defeats yet.

But there's a lesson here as well. Carter was praised by the media for "a discipline of tempered steel," something few would say about him today. Cater "by popular judgment" at the time had "done handsomely" at his first 100 days. Few historians today would agree. Which only serves to point out how snap judgments, once again, don't always stand up to the test of time -- something every journalist contemplating a "100 days" article on Barack Obama would do well to remember.


Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan won the presidency in a landslide in 1980. Reagan faced a daunting array of crises when he took over. The economy was in crisis (interest rates), Iran had taken Americans hostage, and the Cold War at its height were all on his plate when he was sworn in.

But the day he was sworn in as president, the Iranian hostages were released. The timing of this raised suspicions among some, but the general feeling in the American public was relief that a 444-day nightmare was finally over. But even this is not the event that is now remembered by everyone during Reagan's first 100 days, because on March 30, 1981 Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt (which he survived). Americans rally around our presidents in times of crisis, and an assassination attempt galvanized the country behind Reagan as a human being. More so than they already had been, since (as noted) he had just won an electoral landslide in the election.

Reagan was actually pretty slow-moving, at least legislatively speaking, during his first 100 days, perhaps from taking to heart the lessons of Carter's first 100 days. He used his time to set the broad outlines of his radically-different agenda, and to set a stylistic tone for his entire presidency.

From a monstrously-long article in the New York Times from April 26, 1981, titled "Reagan's First 100 Days":

On a mild winter morning nearly 100 days ago, Ronald Reagan took his oath of office as the American hostages in Iran took an Algerian jet to freedom. Mr. Reagan's smooth, insistent voice, summoning Americans to a "new beginning," has since had to compete with such intrusions as the crackling barrage of a would-be assassin's bullets, the disturbing staccato of terrorism in El Salvador, the rumble of Soviet troops maneuvering near Poland and the lesser static of quarreling among his Cabinet and staff. But none of these distractions has weakened the new President's resolve to propel the Government into the greatest change of direction in half a century.

With a gift for political theater, Mr. Reagan has established his goals faster, communicated a greater sense of economic urgency and come forward with more comprehensive proposals than any new President since the first 100 days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the hero of his youth and the man whose record of achieving social change Mr. Reagan seeks to emulate -- albeit at the opposite end of the political spectrum.

In Rooseveltian fashion, Mr. Reagan has commanded the attention of the public, the Congress and America's allies and adversaries. He has skillfully courted new and old friends, kept Democrats and liberals on the defensive and maintained a friendly posture even to those who, like labor leaders and blacks, regard his program as anathema.

And, perhaps by luck, he has managed to avoid the serious blunders of many predecessors. Before the end of their first 100 days, after all, John F. Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs, and Jimmy Carter had already alienated his Congressional allies and had been dramatically rebuffed by the Russians on his early arms-control initiative, setting negotiations back as much as a year for the ill-fated nuclear arms treaty.

. . .

Every modern President plagued by an economic crisis has defined it in terms of confidence, from Roosevelt's appeal -- "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" -- to Gerald Ford's WIN buttons [for: "Whip Inflation Now"] and Mr. Carter's 1979 speech about America's malaise. With Mr. Reagan comes a new resolve, contemptuous of a decade of talk about the need to accept limits on American growth, eager to embark on great new deeds worthy of his version of a simpler past. "And after all," he declared on Inauguration Day, "why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans."

But if Mr. Reagan's goals are awesome, so are the obstacles that impede him, and they have come into sharper focus as well in his first 100 days. The similarities between Roosevelt and Mr. Reagan are many, but one major difference is that Mr. Reagan has begun by outlining a program, not enacting one.

Before the end of Roosevelt's first 100 days, he had taken the nation off the gold standard, rescued the banking system and won passage of 15 major pieces of legislation, from Federal welfare programs to revisions in securities laws and enactment of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Mr. Reagan's achievements so far are contained in a package of proposals including 83 major program changes, 834 amendments to the budget this year and next, 151 lesser budgetary actions and 60 additional pieces of legislation. Not until March 31 did he sign his first bill -- cutting back dairy price supports -- on a breakfast tray at George Washington University Hospital the morning after he was shot. If the bulk of his program is enacted, it won't be until much later in the year, and it is far from certain what form it will be in by then.

. . .

The theory behind Mr. Reagan's [economic] proposals is untested, and he conceded as much in a speech to Congress. Turning to his critics, he asked: "Have they any alternative which offers a greater chance of balancing the budget, reducing and eliminating inflation, stimulating the creation of jobs and reducing the tax burden? And if they haven't, are they suggesting we can continue on the present course without coming to a day of reckoning in the very near future?"

At every chance, Mr. Reagan recognizes the need to rebuild expectations by sounding the theme of self-confidence, that "we are in control" and that "we can and will resolve the problems which confront us." But what he seeks most of all is a duplication of Roosevelt's political success altered to conservative needs -- a creation of the conditions leading to a new era of Republican primacy in America.

. . .

Roosevelt ran on a pledge to cut Government spending by 25 percent, and then showed himself to be a pragmatist and an improviser capable of abandoning campaign promises. "Take a method and try it," he said. "If it fails, try another. But above all, try something."

By contrast, Mr. Reagan may be pragmatic about his tactics, but he ran for office intent on implementing an agenda he had advocated for decades. To the astonishment of many, he is seeking now to carry it out.

. . .

Upon taking office, the memo went on, Mr. Reagan should gear his actions to his call for renewed confidence in America and for passage of his economic program. He was warned not to use "grand rhetoric" until his program was ready, and then to seek to lower expectations so that the public would understand that his goals could not be achieved quickly. "Finally, to provide real leadership, President Reagan must engage in a perennial campaign," the memorandum said, and then concluded: He should mount a daily barrage of speeches, directives and meetings to support his legislation, and he should forget any notion of being an "outsider" in the nation's capital. Mr. Carter had failed at that, alienating the power centers needed for a President to govern effectively.

In his very first days, Mr. Reagan therefore issued a blizzard of executive orders, lifting dozens of Government regulations, dismissing hundreds of Carter holdovers, setting a Federal hiring freeze and cutting back on travel, office redecoration, consultants and furniture procurement.

He met with everybody from the Congressional Black Caucus to the anti-abortionists. He spoke to the nation on television, addressed a joint session of Congress and let NBC film a day of his activities devoted to the economy for an hour-long special. Indeed, in two months, he met face to face with 400 Congressmen and ostentatiously courted the most powerful Democrat among them, Speaker of the House Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr., who was invited for dinner and to the President's surprise birthday party for intimates. When Mr. O'Neill sent a souvenir tie to the White House, Mr. Reagan showed up at their next meeting wearing it. "Now you're in the big leagues," the Speaker had warned the new President. But Mr. Reagan had already proved he knew it.

. . .

[While discussing tax cuts with his administration...] In 90 percent of the cases, the President gave a simple assent to what Mr. Stockman had wrought. Occasionally he sided with a Cabinet Secretary who objected, and sometimes he asked why a certain program couldn't be reduced even more. "Go ahead and cut it," he interjected at one point after a long debate. "They're going to hang me in effigy anyway, and it doesn't matter how high."

. . .

The question of mandate hovers over all of Mr. Reagan's doctrines. Americans, no doubt, endorsed his pledge to curb the intrusive role of Government. But did their votes for Mr. Reagan mean that they wanted him to take all these steps?

Did the election results mean that voters will embrace his efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act, or ease the regulation of wages, hours and conditions in the working place? Do most Americans want weaker controls over strip mining, offshore drilling, nuclear power plants and the labeling of food additives? Do they want the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to back away from regulating businesses? Do they want Government to de-emphasize energy conservation? Do they, indeed, want an end to Government social service programs as we know them?

Democrats who argue "no" have had problems opposing Mr. Reagan because, until recently, they failed to produce an alternative of their own. Moreover, they have been leaderless, rudderless and divided on the ideological lines that split the party even when Mr. Carter was President.

The assassination attempt on Mr. Reagan also appears to have helped the President's program, at least in the short run. "I sense an awful lot of sympathy and love for the President flowering around here now," said Senator Paul Laxalt, the Nevada Republican who is Mr. Reagan's closest Congressional ally. "But if I know the Congressional beast, it'll be short-lived."

. . .

Official Washington, at least, has been captivated by Mr. Reagan's affability. Having angrily labeled some Congressional budget figures as "phony," Mr. Reagan ducks his head later and allows with a grin that "it probably wasn't the proper word to use." Told by an aide that he'd be happy to hear that the Government had functioned normally during his stay in the hospital, Mr. Reagan replied: "What makes you think I'd be happy about that?" Mr. Reagan's quips deflect criticism, the most nettlesome of which is that the Administration remains riven by factionalism. "Sometimes our right hand doesn't know what our far right hand is doing," Mr. Reagan observed in response.

. . .

A major theme of Mr. Reagan's foreign policy is the notion of American moral superiority -- "a shining city on a hill" -- and its central element has been a return to the concept of containment of the Russians. This has meant, for example, that other recent Carter priorities -- curbing nuclear proliferation, advocating human rights and defusing regional disputes in the Middle East and Africa -- have taken second place to the renewed tendency to see problems in terms of East-West strategic considerations.

Surely the public supports a military buildup, and it may also approve of Mr. Reagan's insistence that the Soviet Union reserves "the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat" to advance its interests. Such language hasn't been heard from an American President in years.

But, privately, the President's political advisers say they know that while the American people favor a tougher stance toward the Russians, they simultaneously worry about any increased prospects for a nuclear confrontation. Thus, some aides concede that the Administration's bellicose talk was a significant factor in dampening Mr. Reagan's approval ratings just before the assassination attempt, and that it could become a factor again, hampering his ability to get his economic legislation passed. The President's aides are also concerned that the tough talk might raise unrealistic expectations for action. A Russian invasion of Poland, for example, would force the Administration to face the fact that it could do little to stop Moscow. Such a situation would be similar to Mr. Reagan's early promise of "swift retribution" for terrorism, followed by an embarrassed admission by aides that nothing would be done to punish the terrorists who jeopardized American lives in two recent airplane hijackings.

. . .

There have really been only three periods in this century, however, when American Presidents worked harmoniously with Congress to achieve far-reaching changes in Government: the first terms of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the first two years of Lyndon B. Johnson. But these were eras when Government was expanding, not contracting, as Mr. Reagan wants it to.

America has in more recent years become familiar with the conditions making it more difficult than ever for a President to bring about change. The factors include the atrophying of political parties, the fragmentation of Congress, the rise of Government bureaucracy and the problems posed by special interests, lawyers, American cynicism -- and the tendency of Presidential election campaigns to produce effective candidates, but not effective Presidents.

Facing these difficulties, Mr. Reagan has displayed remarkable political strengths and gifts. His first 100 days have shown that he is a President determined to change the tides of history. The question remains whether his popularity and his claim of a mandate have given him enough strength to do it.

Reagan used his first 100 days to set the tone for his administration. When measured by legislative successes and failures, his record looks awfully thin. But when taken with his success at moving his agenda later in his presidency, it looks awfully prudent. Reagan learned the lessons of Carter's first 100 days, and used his to lay the foundations with Congress and with the American people for his sweeping changes in the American government.

Reagan was also much more successful than Carter at actually keeping the public behind him. Carter's popularity was nowhere near as deep or as long-lived as Reagan's turned out to be (as evidenced by his overwhelming landslide win for re-election in 1984). Reagan did so mostly by communicating to the American people often, and by striking the right stylistic tone when doing so -- something which had eluded Carter.

Other than the hostage release and getting shot, though, Reagan's first 100 days aren't really all that memorable. The rest of his two terms in office were, however, and did wind up realigning American politics for a generation.

The lesson for all of us from Reagan's first 100 days can therefore be summed up as: the first 100 days is a pretty silly and arbitrary ruler to use to measure a president. Success in the first 100 days does not guarantee success for the next four (or eight) years. And vice versa.

Something all of us should keep in mind when grading our current president in the next week or so.


[Note for Monopoly fans: While it wasn't germane to this story, there was an amusing quote in the Carter article cited above. An unnamed senior Carter official, talking about progress with the Soviets on arms control talks, was quoted saying: "We have not gone back to 'Go,' but we are back maybe to Vermont Avenue." ]


Chris Weigant blogs at:


Zelizer's Book Corner -- Anthony J. Badger's FDR: The First Hundred Days

Julian E. Zelizer   |   December 11, 2008    8:40 PM ET

There are two myths circulating in Washington. The first is that current economic conditions are too dire for the White House to undertake major initiatives beyond stabilizing the economy. The second related myth is that President-elect Barack Obama will be a political pragmatist and therefore avoid expansive and controversial proposals.

Yet a closer look at FDR's First Hundred Days, which many commentators are currently comparing to Obama's First Hundred Days, suggests that the president-elect can act amidst this crisis, serving both as a pragmatist and an innovator at the same time.

Professor Anthony Badger's FDR: The First Hundred Days (Hill and Wang) reveals the truth behind the myths. America was in a much worse situation in 1933 than it is today. The workforce faced a rate of twenty five percent unemployed and the entire banking system literally stood on the brink of collapse.

The federal government remained highly underdeveloped. Officials didn't even have basic economic data. Before 1935, government officials lacked solid figures about the exact levels of unemployment. The Federal Reserve system was only created in 1914. There wasn't even a mass income tax. So the issue in 1933 was not just whether the government could respond to the economic crisis, but if officials would be willing to build the institutions needed to handle a challenge as severe as the Depression.

Badger's portrait of the New Deal also shows readers how FDR was a pragmatic experimenter. He combined characteristics that today are said to be at odds. FDR tried many programs at once and he did so within a short span of time. Some policies, such as public relief, were directly aimed at improving the state of the economy while others, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, were not.

FDR understood that most Americans did not want socialism nor would they tolerate the unlimited growth of the federal government. His bold actions were also pragmatic in the sense that the president included checks within many of his programs, such as a self-financing tax in the agricultural program as well as the use of state and local oversight for many federal policies.

The president always kept his eye on the budget. As he moved his proposals forward during the First Hundred Days, he sent a strong message to the cabinet and Congress through the prominence of Lewis Douglas, the fiscally conservative Budget Director. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, one of the most liberal voices in the administration, noted that 'every proposition presented at Cabinet meetings is referred to him [Douglas] to see how it affects the Budget and once it is referred his suggestions are not generally limited to finance."

To be sure, some of the programs that came out of this blizzard of pragmatic experimentation were colossal failures. The National Industrial Recovery Act didn't achieve its goals because it granted too much power to big corporations and relied on too much voluntarism.

But pragmatic experimentation also bred success. While critics on the left would later say that FDR refused to go far enough, Badger shows how the administration was able to revitalize the nation's infrastructure and create a framework for economic recovery. The Tennessee Valley Authority and Security Exchanges Commission, for instances, established rules and regulations that would "facilitate... private enterprise" and created conditions needed for long-term economic recovery.

Badger writes:

"after one hundred days of frenzied activity, sixteen pieces of major legislation gave the federal government the power to decide which banks should or should not reopen, to regulate the stock Exchange, to determine the gold value of the dollar, to prescribe minimum wages and prices, to pay farmers not to produce, to pay money to the unemployed, to plan and regenerate a whole river basin across six states, to spend billions of dollars on public works, and to underwrite credit for bankers, homeowners, and farmers."

When the First Hundred Days were over, the economy remained in a state of severe depression and Americans were still frightened about what would come next.

But FDR had successfully established the framework for an even bolder set of policies in the coming years and he had created a sense of public confidence that the government would be able to guide the nation through the crisis. The First Hundred Days also created a powerful commitment from the federal government to the citizenry to achieve security. This commitment has in many ways survived the years since the 1980 election pushed the country toward the right.

More soon from the academy....

Julian E. Zelizer is professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" (Harvard University Press) and is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II that will be published by Basic Books. For more information, see