The Myth of 100 Days

The 100 days is one of the most nefarious myths of American politics -- not just meaningless but dangerous. It's based on the experience of a single president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took office at a time of national emergency when the instruments of government under Herbert Hoover and his laissez-faire Republican predecessors were wholly inadequate to the challenge, and who moved quickly to invent new ones. It was a brilliant moment, but the innovations that we now consider the legacy of FDR's presidency all came much later. If the approach taken during the original first 100 days had been extended into the future, our inherited liberalism would be very different -- much more of a corporatist model of business-government collaboration than the social safety net and regulated free market that emerged.

But Barack Obama is one of the great mythbusters in American history. The misleading idea that if a president is going to accomplish anything, he or she has to do it, or at least get it on track, in the first 100 days is remarkably similar to another great political myth: the myth of momentum in the presidential primaries. The conventional wisdom held that to win a presidential nomination, especially as an insurgent, you needed enormous momentum coming out of the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. Obama invented an entirely new way of winning the presidency, first setting up the conditions for victory and then grinding it out, delegate by delegate. No delegate, it turned out, was more important than any other.

And the same is true of the 1,461 days of a term in the White House. Ralph Waldo Emerson compared the days to gods. For Obama, the days are like delegates, or what delegates were to him a year ago. Each and every one brings new opportunities, none is more valuable than another, and not a single one can be wasted. He can ignore the 100-day milestone as confidently as he ignored those who left him for dead in the wake of last year's New Hampshire primary.

But there is something a president can expect to do in the first 100 days, and that is to set the terms of the fights that will follow. It is the time to figure out where he will find allies, who his implacable enemies are, and where there is opportunity to build new coalitions. Here the model of Ronald Reagan is telling: At 100 days, his presidency had little substantive to show for itself, but the lines were drawn, and a loose coalition of Southern and Western Democrats was ready to join the conservative revolution. Over the late summer of 1981, when the budget and tax bills that set the terms of conservative governance were passed, and again through his presidency, the allies and enemies he had defined in those first few months shaped the parameters of the Reagan revolution.

How successfully has Obama set the terms of debate so far? The first thing to notice is that he has completely marginalized the Republican right, and his bipartisan outreach has a lot to do with it. Those of us who welcomed Obama's bipartisan and consensus-building tone were often criticized on the grounds that Republicans would unite in lockstep opposition to any Democratic president, and so, we were lectured, one had to fight them with equal force. Having witnessed the lockstep opposition to President Bill Clinton at close hand in 1993, I was hardly naive about the Republican strategy of massive resistance. The question was whether it would work. In 1993, Republicans got continuous positive feedback for their opposition -- gaining in the polls, bringing Clinton's popularity down, and effectively blocking, not just modifying, most of Clinton's initiatives except for those in the giant budget-reconciliation bill. They could see the potential Republican majority right around the corner.

This time, though, the Republicans have little to show for their opposition and with nowhere else to turn, seem to be aligning themselves not only with the crazier elements of their own coalition but with a desperate last-gasp defense of the most unpopular -- not to mention illegal and immoral -- aspects of the previous administration. Such a result is extraordinarily helpful to the magnanimous president -- it removes any ambiguity, tells him exactly where he stands, and gives him the moral high ground in moving forward with a mainly Democratic coalition. And the few Republicans who for personal reasons or for reasons of constituency do want to cooperate with the president will find themselves cut off from their party, and as they find it harder to keep a foot in each camp, they will have to move more completely and decisively, just as Sen. Arlen Specter did by switching parties.

Obama's been less successful, of course, in setting the terms of debate with Democrats. A failure to deal effectively with the congressional egos of their own party has been the downfall of every Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson (of which there have been only two, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton), but in previous cases, the presidents were complicit in the disaster, newcomers to Washington who failed to show proper respect. In Obama's case, it's harder to blame him for the reluctance of senators like Evan Bayh and Ben Nelson to support the popular president's agenda.

It's probably what the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson called "backlash insurance," in their 2005 book Off-Center. Hacker and Pierson were describing Republicans who dissented from the party just often enough to show some independence from Bush and the congressional machine, just to protect themselves against a backlash. Democrats like Bayh are probably overinvesting in backlash insurance, and as Obama's popularity holds steady, the percentage of Americans who think we're on the "right track" continues to rise (a remarkable outcome).

But we should take a moment to respect the miracle that these 100 days happened at all. Consider what we have come through in the last 12 years or so of conservative dominance: a politicized impeachment, an election in which the actual winner did not become president, a staggering usurpation of executive power, a long war premised on lies, a partly successful effort at one-party control, the most systematic violation of civil liberties since the Red Scare, a disgraceful and systematic embrace of barbaric behavior at the highest levels of government.

Step back any distance, and you'd say we've gone through an electoral crisis, several iterations of constitutional crisis, and a crisis of legitimacy. And yet here we are, with the constitution and our electoral democracy intact, a new leader and a new majority, diligently and democratically trying to undo the damage and build a new future. That's not the work of a hundred days or a thousand.

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