If it seems arbitrary -- even unfair -- to take the measure of a new president after just 100 days in office, you can blame Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1933, with the nation in a financial meltdown, Roosevelt came to the White House and, with an enthusiastic Democratic Congress at his command, enacted a whirlwind of emergency legislation. There was a bank stabilization bill, unemployment relief and farm supports, stock market regulation, the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority -- and the repeal of Prohibition. It took FDR only 103 days to launch that first version of his New Deal, and the initial storm set a tone for the rest of Roosevelt's first term: constant action, bold experimentation, unprecedented expansion of the authority of the federal government.
Since then, journalists and political analysts have embraced the 100-day report card for new presidents. But for most leaders since FDR, the first three months have been an unreliable guide to the years that followed.
In 1993, Bill Clinton's 100 days were a chaotic period of trial and error, beginning with a stymied attempt to allow gays to serve openly in the military and ending with the defeat in Congress of a $16-billion stimulus bill (an amount that seemed high at the time). At this point 16 years ago, conventional wisdom held that Clinton would probably limp through a single term in office.
In 2001, George W. Bush's 100 days were proclaimed a solid success, especially for a president who came to the White House on the strength of a Supreme Court ruling after losing the popular vote. In this newspaper, I wrote that Bush was running a careful, well-focused administration, praised by one leading scholar for its "astonishing professionalism."
So much for predictions. In both cases, events -- and the presidents' own decisions -- led to far different presidencies than anyone would have predicted at the outset.
Still, if ever a president bore comparison to Roosevelt, it would be Barack Obama: another Democrat entering office amid a crushing economic collapse, another believer in activist government bent on finding new ways to use federal power in almost every part of American life.
Like Roosevelt, Obama has used his first 100 days to launch emergency measures aimed at getting the economy back on track: There was a $787-billion stimulus plan, a bank bailout package, housing recovery measures, a massive expansion of action by the Federal Reserve, and an ambitious budget that proposed even more change.
And, like Roosevelt, Obama would like to keep up the pace. The emergency legislation of FDR's 100 days weren't the biggest accomplishments of what we now remember as the New Deal; those came later -- Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the monumental dams and bridges of the Public Works Administration.
So too, Obama and his aides appear now to be catching their breath, assessing the results of their first attempts to stabilize the economy, in preparation for the next stage of their program. In speeches and events this week, Obama will begin pressing Congress and the public to support his plans to re-regulate financial markets, reform the healthcare system and reshape the nation's energy consumption.
"Rule 1: Never allow a crisis to go to waste," Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has said so often that it has become the administration's semiofficial motto.
"Things that we had postponed for too long, that were long-term, are now immediate and must be dealt with," Emanuel said shortly after the election. "This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before."
Obama and his aides are unapologetic about seeking so many big changes at the same time. "Barack Obama wasn't elected to stand guard over the status quo; he was elected to change it," his chief political strategist, David Axelrod, said in an interview.
And yet, for all the talk of sweeping change, we have learned this about Obama: He is not really a radical. Even his careful rhetoric is less populist than FDR's or even Theodore Roosevelt's could be at times.
Like FDR, he wants to reform American capitalism in order to save it. He didn't move to nationalize the banks; he negotiated with them to buy up their toxic assets. He hasn't proposed replacing private health insurers with a government plan; instead, he talks of making the insurance industry a cornerstone of his new system. Even his talk of rebalancing the distribution of income, reversing the flow of wealth to the top 5% -- which has spurred cries of socialism from the right -- is really only a proposal to return tax rates to where they were in the conservative heyday of Ronald Reagan.
"He's not a revolutionary; he's a liberal," said historian Allan Lichtman of American University. "Obama's made big changes, but within the normal liberal-conservative arc. Yes, the pendulum has swung, but it's swung from mainstream conservatism to mainstream liberalism."
One more thing, Lichtman noted: Obama is a fox, not a hedgehog. The phrase comes from British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who quoted an ancient Greek poet: "The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing."
Ronald Reagan was considered a hedgehog; he wanted smaller government and a tougher U.S. confrontation with the Soviet Union. (OK, two big things.) Obama, like Bill Clinton, wants to do many, many things. The long debate among political scholars and historians has been: Which approach is more effective? Does a fox, by trying so much, risk accomplishing little?
Obama and his aides have heard all of this, and refuse to concede that parts of their program might be beyond their grasp. But they are also beginning to do some triage.
Among the president's seemingly limitless goals, some are clearly essential, others optional. Reviving the economy comes first; without that, nothing else is in reach. Healthcare and energy are next; that's where Obama will focus his efforts for the rest of this year. After that, everything -- even education and deficit reduction -- may be deferrable, Obama aides acknowledge (but not on the record). Immigration and tax reform, maybe later.
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."
Obama's decisions on which goals to pursue are only one factor shaping his future, of course. Like any president, he is also at the mercy of events -- especially when it comes to the economy.
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.
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About this series
This three-part series examines the early arc of the Obama administration. The articles were based on dozens of interviews conducted with White House officials, outside advisors to the administration, members of Congress, lobbyists, presidential scholars, and business, entertainment and other executives who have interacted with the president or key figures in his administration.
Sunday: Obama's aggressive agenda.
Monday: Selling the Obama brand.
Today: The challenges ahead.