100 days: a leader’s test or ‘Hallmark holiday’?

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As President Obama prepares to mark his 100th day in the White House, he acknowledged Monday that the nation might not reach one of his major environmental goals for a while longer: 15,000 days, or 41 years.

That’s how long it could take for the nation to cut its carbon emissions by 80%, Obama said during an appearance at the National Academy of Sciences.

His caution plays into the administration’s efforts to deflate expectations about what he reasonably could have solved by Wednesday.


The White House initially downplayed the 100-day benchmark -- one of his senior advisors, David Axelrod, called it the “journalistic equivalent of a Hallmark holiday.”

But now, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says, the administration is “playing along.”

On Wednesday, Obama will take part in a town-hall-style event in St. Louis and a prime-time news conference from the East Room of the White House. Every major broadcast network but Fox will air the news conference live.

The president is certain to get a question on what he’s accomplished in his first 100 days -- and he’s certain to have a ready answer. But Obama also wants to discourage the idea that progress will be quick.

“It’s an arbitrary demarcation of time created by some conglomeration of reporters and historians,” Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s deputy communications director, said Monday. “Any suggestion we could do more than make a down payment on the change the president promised in 100 days is unrealistic.”

Obama is grappling with issues that don’t easily comport with a 100-day timeline, as the last couple of weeks have demonstrated.


For example, the president’s top economic advisor, Lawrence H. Summers, cautioned over the weekend that economic recovery was “going to be a very long road.” Although “there are going to be steps forward, there are also going to be steps backward,” he said.

Amid reports of a swine flu outbreak, the White House has been working to reassure Americans that it is prepared for a pandemic.

Beyond that, the administration is feeling its way through an uproar after releasing memos detailing the harsh interrogation methods approved by lawyers for President George W. Bush; instituting a regulatory regimen for the financial sector; and preparing for perhaps the biggest domestic policy battle in nearly 20 years, a healthcare overhaul.

The 100-day window traditionally used to measure new administrations has its roots in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency.

By the time the 100 days had elapsed in 1933, Roosevelt had launched a slew of legislation and relief programs aimed at rescuing the economy from the Great Depression.

That fertile period has been hard for successive presidents to match.

On Monday, Gibbs gave the administration a grade for the first 100 days: “B-plus.”

“I think there’s always room for improvement,” Gibbs told reporters. “But I think . . . the president and the administration are pleased with what has been done in the first 100 days if you look at restarting credit flowing, increased financial stability, the passage of a recovery and reinvestment plan.


“But as I’ve also said, I think the American people are less likely to spend a lot of time sitting around Wednesday judging what we’ve done in our first 100 days, and are more concerned with what we’re going to do each and every day going forward.”

Supporting the White House effort, the Democratic National Committee announced Monday it was airing a 60-second cable TV spot today and Wednesday. Viewers will see text reading: “The First 100 Days. Laying a Foundation for Change.”

For all the attention to the calendar, history shows the first 100 days are not the best predictor of what’s to come.

“Look back in time and you don’t find an enormous amount of foreshadowing in those first 100 days,” said presidential historian Fred I. Greenstein, whose new book is “The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Barack Obama.”

“George W. Bush’s presidency really began with 9/11, for example, and that of course wasn’t evident in his first 100 days,” Greenstein said.

For Obama, the test is not the first 100 days but the next 100 days -- and the 1,000 days after that.


“His place in the history books depends on how all this comes out,” Greenstein said. “The jury is still out.”