No doubt Tom Mann, Stu Rothenberg, Charlie Cook and others among my colleagues are spending this week as I am: It is the first 100 days landmark, and I am busy answering regular phone calls from journalists trying to assess the Obama presidency compared to his predecessors.
I suspect we would all agree that assessing any president after 100 days is not worth a whole lot, especially when the benchmarks are FDR and LBJ. The beginning of a presidency is so dependent on the circumstances of entry: Did the president win in a landslide, or by a narrow margin; did he have any coat-tails; was the election one of change or of continuity, both in party and public mood; did the election occur at a time of crisis; was there any crisis that transformed politics during the first months of the new president?
Beyond all those contextual questions lies another reality. A presidency is four or eight years, either a marathon or a triathlon. Measuring progress after the first 100 yards can be very misleading. A runner could stumble badly coming out of the blocks but recover to get a fast time or even a world record over the remaining 26 miles and 285 yards. Conversely, a runner could set the world record for a 100-yard dash and then flame out before ever reaching the finish line.
Still, all the caveats considered, there is merit in looking at how a president has started his presidency, as there is merit in asking candidates for the office to discuss their 100-day strategies should they win. Back in June 1992, I was part of a small panel on "Good Morning America," interacting with candidate Bill Clinton. I asked him how he would approach his first 100 days if elected. He responded by pointing to his new comprehensive policy guidebook, "Putting People First," which had a full agenda for at least four years, if not eight, and said he would do all of that in his first 100 days.
When I pointed out to him that he sounded a lot like Jimmy Carter, who put out an overloaded agenda at the beginning of his presidency, causing gridlock on Capitol Hill and frittering away his early opportunities, Clinton uncharacteristically was at a loss; this was clearly not a subject he had thought about (and it was not a subject that dominated his thinking in the months after the 1992 election either). Some of the early stumbles that resulted plagued the first two years of his presidency.
At the end of the first 100 days, it is worth asking questions like these:
Did the newly elected president treat the first 100 days as beginning the day after the election, or starting at noon on Jan. 20? Smart presidents who squeeze the most out of the first part of their terms avoid the temptation to coast, relax and take a few leisurely victory laps after the grueling campaign.
Did the new president get his team in place quickly? Savvy presidents start the vetting process for potential Cabinet and sub-Cabinet members before the election, begin to plot out what people they want and where they want them. Even smarter presidents understand that every aspect of the presidency flows from the White House and are ready to choose key White House personnel and set a White House structure in place beginning right after the election. Most important is choosing a chief of staff who can actually run the place, and who understands that the operative word in the title is staff, not chief.
Did the new president understand the importance of Congress, and plan accordingly? Smart presidents don't wait until they are hit upside the head with a two-by-four to understand that little can be accomplished without working with Congress, accommodating Congressional interests, and figuring out how, when the rubber hits the road as it inevitably will, to conquer Congress.
Did the new president understand that FDR is not the model to emulate in the first 100 days? It is very unlikely that any president will have the hugely swollen majorities that Franklin D. Roosevelt had from the beginning, the sense of panic in the country over the state of the economy in the midst of the Great Depression, or the willingness of the country to do anything and everything that the president wanted to help us get out of the mess. There will be times when the opportunity for major policy change is ripe, as it was for LBJ in 1965. But usually an approach that is designed to fit the particulars of the times and the new president is required.
So how do we judge Barack Obama? First of all, he did start early and smartly, with a whirlwind of purposeful activity from Nov. 5 on. Obama more than any recent president understood the importance of the transition and, with the unprecedented help of George W. Bush, hit the ground running and moved rapidly to prepare for his presidency. He got the White House structure and staff in place quickly and chose wisely for the top spot.
Rahm Emanuel knows the White House well from his time there under Clinton, knows what works and does not, knows the Congress well from his time there, including an astonishingly rapid rise up the ranks of the leadership, knows what makes Members of Congress tick, knows the key leaders intimately, knows the value of bipartisanship, and knows that he is acting on behalf of the president.
Obama also moved rapidly to get the Cabinet in place and the sub-Cabinet moving, but was hampered by a cumbersome nomination and confirmation process that he did not move to streamline when he had the chance. While he has a better record than his recent predecessors on getting sub-Cabinet officials in office, that is not a satisfying standard; the stumbles on the financial recovery package were amplified by the failure to get top Treasury people in office quickly.
On policy, Obama focused on things that could be done quickly in Congress, including unfinished business from 2008 (SCHIP, Lilly Ledbetter), things that could signal immediate change via executive action to fit the public mood and his campaign promises (closing Guantanamo) and the biggest priority of the election and its aftermath, a major stimulus package. He got the latter enacted into law within 30 days of assuming office, by giving sizable slack to Congress and using his popularity and momentum to capture enough Democrats to overcome united GOP opposition in the House, while figuring out ways to compromise to find the 60 votes needed in the Senate. Not half bad.
But now the real heavy lifting begins. Is the agenda too overloaded for his first year? Is the dysfunction in the political process eventually going to take its toll, especially if his popularity declines? Can he square the circle with revenues coming in to match the huge spending ahead? Can he find majorities that have eluded others for health reform, entitlement reform, climate change? Those are the big questions that transcend the 100 days issue, questions for more columns ahead.
Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.