According to senior adviser David Axelrod, the first 100 days are "the journalistic equivalent of the Hallmark holiday. The truth is it is very hard to evaluate any presidency after one hundred days."
But, if you did want to evaluate the administration, perhaps after the president's prime time news conference on the very day of which we speak, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel has a suggestion: "I don't want to go negative on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but he didn't pass an economic deal in the first 100 days. We have passed the largest Recovery Act in the history of the country." Is there anyone that Emanuel won't go negative on?
So, to be clear, when you stop by CVS to pick up your 100 Days card ("For the President, from House Republican Leader"), be sure to get something that strikes the right balance between brushing off the event and claiming the most successful early presidency in historic memory. To help you out -- the Prospect considers four of President Obama's major domestic policy efforts in his first 100 days.
Every Crisis ...
Domestic policy has been focused foremost on the need to respond to the recession. Despite questions about its size (too small or too big, depending on who you're talking to) and efficacy (too early to tell), the nearly $800 billion economic stimulus package signed into law on Feb. 17 will take front and center status as the most popular and successful accomplishment in the president's arsenal in spite of near-united GOP opposition. His program to stop foreclosures , Making Home Affordable, should be recognized as well; though it is a well-designed plan, it's unclear how effective it will be, especially as a critical part of the plan that adjusts bankruptcy law dies a quiet death in the Senate without much support from the administration.
The administration's byzantine response to the financial crisis deserves a paragraph of its own, since it has often been at the center of the media narrative. Elfin Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has confronted CEOs of every industry, angry congressional committees, critical economists, metaphorical mobs of pitchfork wielding citizens, actual mobs of teabag-wielding citizens, CNBC hosts and, oh yes, the finance ministers of every major economic power. A rocky early start has given way to more consistency in public relations, though major questions remain about the mechanisms Geithner has proposed to fix credit markets. There have been some mixed signals of economic improvement -- signals that may be obscuring the possibility of a stalled recovery. Despite criticism, a Congress that won't provide the tools or money needed for more aggressive action, and a disastrous communications strategy, the tightly wound Treasury Secretary has kept his head and looks to bull forward -- market pun intended -- and execute his complex plan to recapitalize insolvent banks.
... is an opportunity.
The next step is the president's impressive budget, which he unveiled to near-audible gasps around the beltway. "Enormous investments!" Democrats cried; "Enormous deficits!" Republicans replied. The document, characterized by bold policy initiatives in health care, energy and education and the abandonment of much of the traditional budget gimmickry designed to obscure future costs, galvanized liberals -- "This is budgeting we can believe in," economist and frequent administration critic Paul Krugman purred -- and led conservatives into open opposition -- "These numbers don't work and the practical implications of them are staggering for the nation and the next generation," moans Republican Sen. Judd Gregg. The president framed his proposal as the next step in economic recovery, a foundation to build long-term economic growth, promising to deal with long-term debt with health care cost savings and responsible budget trimming; he also hinted at future efforts to address Social Security spending, raising hackles on the left and eyebrows on the right.
The president's vision has suffered some in the hands of parochial interests in Congress -- innovative revenue-producing measures to limit tax deductions, cut agricultural subsidies and realign the defense budget, as well as his cap and trade energy plan, all face significant opposition. Nonetheless, the president has won major victories by ensuring that two critical initiatives, his plan to save $400 billion by cutting student loan subsidies and his health care reform efforts, will be protected from any future filibuster. Now the big battles begin as rest of the summer is spent filling in the policy details on health care reform, the top priority of the president's domestic agenda, and ironing out the details of the rest of government's balance sheet.
"I know how to say 'union.'"
Perhaps the biggest disappointment to those on the left has been the administration's lack of support for passing the Employee Free Choice Act, the top union priority that would reinvigorate a labor movement. With key senators withdrawing their backing for the legislation as written, it looks like the only chance to change labor law will be a compromise bill currently being negotiated.
That's not to say that Obama hasn't taken steps to help working Americans: So far, he signed the Ledbetter Fair Pay act, appointed pro-labor Congresswoman Hilda Solis to be his Secretary of Labor, directed new funding to workplace safety programs, and tapped two prominent labor lawyers to join the National Labor Review Board. Important changes, to be sure, but not as symbolically powerful as a commitment to pass the first major union legislation in decades.
The end of the culture wars?
In a word, no, but the White House has been even quieter on the social issues front, at the expense of criticism from the left for public outreach to conservative religious figures. The president has declined to approach legislation to protect choice, fulfill his promise to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, or consider opposing the Defense of Marriage Act. Still, he has lifted restrictions on stem cell research and appointed an openly gay official to head the Office of Personnel Management, who is expected to push for equal benefits for LGTB government employees. Perhaps the boldest move on this front was the passage of a broad expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which extended health coverage to millions of children.
That's a busy, and newsy, few months. How do you judge such a broad canon? Ironically enough, both versions of the White House spin are right on this call. One hundred days is an ultimately arbitrary, and thus stupid, time frame to judge the performance of a chief executive -- major programs are barely getting under way, with their success or failure to be determined in years. Consider the early fate of the stimulus -- it is smart policy, but has already come under attack for provisions that approved bonuses for employees at government-rescued AIG.
Pundits like to think that today's political predictions depend on the actions of the president, but given the current economic situation the actions of the president depend on his Treasury Secretary's ability to control the fallout from a financial system that seems determined to sabotage both itself and the economy as a whole. It's the Treasury agenda that should make progressives most leery, and it gets the grade "Needs Improvement."