Obama’s first hundred days: Looking through the lens of history

CNN Senior Political Analyst

How should one assess the First Hundred Days of President Obama?

I come at this question through an experience of some years ago. After he won the presidential election of 1980, Ronald Reagan asked his transition team to come up with an action plan for his early weeks in office. I was a co-captain of that team with Richard Wirthlin and headed up a research project to study the First Hundred Days of other recent presidents — FDR, Ike, Kennedy, Nixon and Carter.

Let me outline our 3 conclusions and see how President Obama stacks up:

First, the public makes a fresh evaluation of a president the day he takes office. Until then they have only known him as a candidate and possibly as a Senator or Governor. But as soon as he enters the White House, they look at him anew: Is he really up to the job? Can we trust him? Does he know where he wants to go? Do we want to go there too? Or does buyer’s remorse set in?

Some presidents pass the test with flying colors – think FDR, Ike and then Reagan. Others disappoint – think Ford and Carter. From my perspective, Barack Obama has struck most Americans as one of the most promising presidents we have seen. Indeed, a major historian told me recently that “he is the single most impressive man I have witnessed in my adult lifetime” – and I am not at all sure that this historian voted for him.

Obama is smart, steady, articulate, and listens. As Strobe Talbott, head of Brookings, told a journalist about his performance at the G-20, he managed to be a leader without being boss. How Obama maintains his equanimity is one of the mysteries of the day, but he has an inner calm – almost a Hawaian Zen – that is calming for the country. FDR and Reagan brought a contagious optimism to the job that gave people hope; Obama brings a calm that helps to banish fear and gives people strength for the journey.

Second, the First Hundred Days provide an opportunity for a president to put a firm thematic stamp upon his entire administration. FDR became “Doctor New Deal”, and Ike became the man who would bring peace to Korea. By contrast, Carter’s presidency seemed scatted and without a theme, overshadowing people’s sense that he was also a man of high principles and character.

Obama’s early presidency has been a whirlwind, as he tackles a new issue or crisis almost everyday. It is hard to remember a president who has so dominated the news the way he has. By most traditional standards, he is trying to do too much – and is almost certain to drop one or two balls along the way – but I must say that perhaps he can pull it off. Most traditionalists, after all, thought he couldn’t make it to the Democratic nomination, much less to the White House. And what has emerged is a theme of sweeping change – and clearly, that is what voters wanted back in November when they delivered a strong victory for him. Clearly, he has not been as successful at convincing the public that he is on the right track on everything – and nowhere near as successful in convincing people that he is up to the job – but he deserves good marks here, too.

Third and finally, our study for Reagan found that the First Hundred Days are also a time of great peril – a time when presidents make some of their biggest mistakes. Kennedy had his Bay of Pigs in the First Hundred Days; Ford had his pardon of Nixon (a courageous act but one that was badly executed and wound up helping him lose the presidency in 1976). Carter had a small disaster over water projects and a bigger one with the ill-fated way he announced a sweeping plan to achieve energy independence (we never got there).

How does Obama fare here? Well, one has to say that he has been extremely successful in avoiding big, obvious mistakes. By my lights, he has made some smaller mistakes – the way he first handled the AIG bonuses, the way he waffled for a while on the “torture memos” – but he and his team deserve credit for avoiding big, obvious, crippling mistakes.

But we should reserve final judgment on this one, for the truth is that he has set us on an economic course that is extraordinarily important for the country. It may work – let us hope for the country’s sake that it does – but then again, it may not. Will his bailout of the banks really work, or are we facing far more bailouts? What about Detroit? Will the stimulus plan actually work as advertised? Will the economy truly bounce back or just limp along? And longer term, what will come from these annual trillion dollar deficits that his budget will bring in the decade ahead? Good or bad for the country? On all of this, we just cannot be certain yet.

Bottom line: President Obama is off to an excellent start as a leader. He is one of the most promising and impressive men we have had in this office in many a year. His programmatic efforts are also strong, though not in the stratosphere. But we don’t yet have the full story on how all this will turn out. It’s as if we have just finished reading the first chapter and are asked how the book will compare to War and Peace. We don’t know yet. But we do know this: the Obama presidency has become one of the most fascinating and fateful in the history of the Republic.

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