Read more of Slate’s coverage of Obama’s first 100 days.
By now you’ve probably heard or read about an Obama aide saying that the 100-day timeline for measuring presidents is a “Hallmark holiday.” It’s a fake moment, a journalistic trope of premature measurement that the administration is compelled to go along with because we’re insisting.
Fair enough. But just because it’s a fake holiday doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be thanking us for the gift. When mother gets a bouquet of flowers on Mother’s Day, she doesn’t turn around and throw it in our faces. The White House should be grateful—because if the press weren’t obsessed with this parlor game, it would have to spend time searching for ways to brag about the president’s achievements without seeming too boastful. Instead, the 100-day mark provides aides a chance to crow and not get tagged as arrogant or distracted. (Perhaps a thank-you note is in the mail.)
A look at the polls shows why it’s such a good thing for the Obama administration that the media is engaged in an orgy of stock-taking. The president is as popular as he’s ever been. Four-fifths of Americans like him personally, and his job-approval ratings are in the high 60s. Forty-two percent say the country is headed in the right direction, the highest that number has been in five years. Meanwhile, the opposition is as unpopular as it’s ever been. Only 21 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans.
And the blame for partisanship goes to the minority. In a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 70 percent of Americans said they think Republican members of Congress have opposed the Obama administration for mostly political reasons. That may be why their ability to drive a message hasn’t worked. Americans see Obama as a strong leader, despite efforts by the opposition to say he’s weak for greeting Hugo Chávez and reversing Bush’s policies on national security. This ascent to the heavens was only enhanced by Arlen Specter’s conversion to the Democratic Party.
The 100-day extravaganza amplifies this news and helps Obama consolidate his position as a popular and strong leader before he shifts to the more difficult second chapter in his presidency. As phony as the 100-day checkup may be, it comes at a natural time for the administration: We’re now in the transition point between his efforts to manage the catastrophe he inherited and his attempts enact policies for the future. With each passing day, Obama loses the rhetorical and persuasive power of the economic emergency—if for no other reason than he’s been in office long enough to feel pressure to show how his policies have ameliorated the emergency situation. Now he must convince Americans to accept significant changes in their lives based on the power of his ideas.
With the Democratic control in the House and the potential of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, it may seem that Obama can do just about anything he wants. But selling ideas will be harder in this next phase, particularly when the signature debate will be about remaking our health care system, which amounts to one-fifth of the economy.
Even with Obama’s high personal popularity, there is a gap between the way people feel about Obama personally and their willingness to support his policies. In the most recent Wall Street Journal poll, only 51 percent support his policies. The good news for Obama is that if people have fears about his policies, very few of them are looking to the opposition for alternatives. Even Republicans trying to find an opening concede that their party is not a part of the policy conversation. On some issues, though, the splits aren’t ideological. In the Senate, Democrats from coal and industrial states still need to be convinced to get behind the president’s cap-and-trade energy policy.
Obama aides talk about the placidity of the White House work environment in such glowing terms it’s hard to believe glands weren’t removed during the background check. One senior aide makes the case that everyone is so busy there’s too little time for fighting. But even if there has been more friction than it appears, it’s extraordinary that the team has been able to do so much so quickly without crackups. Aides cite not only Obama’s even temperament but his penchant for pointing the finger at himself for mistakes more often than he does others.
All of this good news ratifies the Obama drama-free operating model. He and his team are doing well despite a series of setbacks—Tom Daschle’s failed nomination, Timothy Geithner’s near-death experience, Warren Buffett’s criticism, the bungled response to news of the AIG bailouts, and, most recently, the fuss over the torture memos. The Obama team weathered all of this by not losing their heads and taking small tactical steps to reposition—admitting a mistake in the case of Daschle or stoking the outrage and then dousing it when it came to AIG. Rahm Emanuel may be taking yoga to temper his temper, but there’s nothing to instill placidity in a group like repeated proof that storms of the moment blow over.
What the first 100 days have not really prepared the Obama team for, though, is a quick change overseas. Obama has been well-received in his two big foreign trips, but it’s still a very dangerous world with two wars, instability in Pakistan, and erratic behavior from Iran and North Korea. The Obama team is well aware that Hallmark holidays aren’t celebrated in those places.
Slate V: The Worst 100 Days