Here's how one Obama advisor ranked the priorities: "Passage of healthcare in some form, progress on energy, and a sense by the end of the year that the economy is turning the corner -- that what has been put in place is starting to work. The only one of the three [campaign] planks that I'd leave out is education, because it just isn't as emotional to people as healthcare and energy."
If the economy recovers quickly, Obama will get credit from the public for his stimulus package and bank bailout (whether they actually did the trick or not). But if the economy falters and Obama asks Congress for a second stimulus package or additional bank bailout funds, the ensuing battles may soak up some of the time, energy and political capital he hopes to devote to healthcare and energy.
"If people feel we are making progress, they'll continue to hang in there with him," one advisor observed. "If they start losing faith that progress is being made, then it will become a challenge."
Obama's mandate, after all, is not unlimited.
His popular-vote margin over John McCain was 7% -- healthy but not staggering. (FDR's margin over Herbert Hoover in 1932 was 17%, and Lyndon B. Johnson's over Barry Goldwater in 1964 was even bigger.) For all his charisma and mastery of communication, Obama's standing in the polls is merely in the normal range. The Gallup Poll found last week that 62% of Americans approved of the job Obama was doing -- exactly the same percentage as approved of George W. Bush's performance at the same point in his presidency. If Obama runs into trouble, his magic could fade.
The most important political target lies 16 months ahead: the midterm congressional elections, which will decide whether Obama gets two more years to press his ambitious agenda forward -- or no more time at all.
In 1934, FDR's Democrats picked up nine Senate seats for a total of 69 -- and the power to pass almost any legislation the president wanted.
In 1994, by contrast, Clinton's Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives to Newt Gingrich's insurgent Republicans, and the Clinton presidency became an exercise in defensive counterpunching, not ambitious policymaking.
"Next year, as we start getting closer to midterms, [whether] people feel the economy is improving becomes that much more critically important," the Obama advisor said. "The leading indicator [is] the importance of the deficit and whether too much is being spent. Right now, that sentiment is confined to the Republican Party. If independents start to move on that issue, then it will become quite difficult for him to get done what he needs to get done."
Never mind the first 100 days. It's the next 400 that count.
Doyle McManus, former Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief, is an op-ed columnist for the paper. Times staff writers Faye Fiore and Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.