Joe Klein: Sizing Up Obama's First 100 Days





The President almost seemed apologetic. "This may be a slightly longer speech than I usually give," he told his audience at Georgetown University on April 14. "This is going to be prose and not poetry." What followed, as promised, was not poetry. Barack Obama doesn't do much poetry anymore. But in prose that was spare and clear and compelling, the President proceeded to describe how his Administration had responded to the financial crisis, the overriding challenge of his first 100 days in office. He had covered this ground before, nearly as well, in his budget message to Congress. But now Obama went further, using a parable from the Sermon on the Mount — the need for a house built on rock rather than on sand — to describe a future that was nothing less than an overhaul of the nature of American capitalism. "It is simply not sustainable," he said, "to have an economy where, in one year, 40% of our corporate profits came from a financial sector that was based on inflated home prices, maxed-out credit cards, overleveraged banks and overvalued assets."...

The idea that a President can be assessed in a mere 100 days is a journalistic conceit. Most presidencies evolve too slowly to be judged so quickly. Roosevelt set the initial standard in 1933, overpowering Congress and passing a slew of legislation to confront the Great Depression during his first three months in office. "Lyndon Johnson had two 100-days periods," says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, "one after the Kennedy assassination and another after he was elected in 1964." Indeed, Johnson's legislative haul dwarfs anything before or since; he quickly got Congress on track to pass landmark civil rights bills and create Medicare, among other things. "And you have to say that Reagan had a significant 100 days," Goodwin adds, "because he represented a clear break from the policies of the past, even if his signature legislation — the tax cuts — didn't pass until after the 100 days were over. But I don't think we've ever seen anything like Obama since Roosevelt."

The legislative achievements have been stupendous — the $789 billion stimulus bill, the budget plan that is still being hammered out (and may, ultimately, include the next landmark safety-net program, universal health insurance). There has also been a cascade of new policies to address the financial crisis — massive interventions in the housing and credit markets, a market-based plan to buy the toxic assets that many banks have on their books, a plan to bail out the auto industry and a strict new regulatory regime proposed for Wall Street. Obama has also completely overhauled foreign policy, from Cuba to Afghanistan. "In a way, Obama's 100 days is even more dramatic than Roosevelt's," says Elaine Kamarck of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "Roosevelt only had to deal with a domestic crisis. Obama has had to overhaul foreign policy as well, including two wars. And that's really the secret of why this has seemed so spectacular....

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