While officials in the Obama White House dismissed yesterday’s “100 Days” anniversary as a “Hallmark Holiday,” they understood it was what sociologist Daniel J. Boorstin called a “pseudo-event.” By that, Boorstin meant an occasion that is not spontaneous but planned for the purpose of being reported — an event that is important because someone says so, not because it is.
What happens in a president’s first 100 days rarely characterizes the arc of the 1,361 that follow. Jimmy Carter had a very good first 100 days. Bill Clinton did not.
Still, a president would rather start well than poorly — and Mr. Obama has a job approval of 63%. That leaves him tied with Mr. Carter, one point ahead of George W. Bush, and behind only Ronald Reagan’s 67%. Four of the past six presidents had approval ratings that ranged between 62% and 67%, a statistically insignificant spread.
Mr. Obama is popular because he is a historic figure, has an attractive personality, has passed key legislation, and receives adoring press coverage.
However, there are cautionary signs. Mr. Obama’s policies are less popular than his personality, the pace of polarization with Republicans has proceeded faster than ever in history, and independents are thinking more like Republicans on the issues and less like Democrats.
The first 100 days can reveal a pattern of behavior that comes to characterize a presidency. In this respect, there are two emerging habits of Team Obama worth watching.
One is the gap between what Mr. Obama said he would do and what he is doing. His administration is emphasizing in its official 100 days talking points steps he has taken to “deliver on the change he promised.” During the campaign, Mr. Obama denounced the $2.3 trillion added to the national debt on Mr. Bush’s watch as “deficits as far as the eye can see.” But Mr. Obama’s budget adds $9.3 trillion to the debt over the next 10 years. What happened to Obama the deficit hawk?
From Mr. Obama’s Denver acceptance speech through the campaign, Mr. Obama did not publicly utter the phrase “universal health care.” Instead, his campaign ran ads attacking “government-run health care” as “extreme.” Now Mr. Obama is asking, as he did at a townhall meeting last month, “Why not do a universal health care system like the European countries?” Maybe because he was elected by intimating that would be “extreme”?
Another emphasis in the Obama 100 days talking points is that the president is a decisive leader. However, Mr. Obama is enormously deferential to Democrats in Congress and has outsourced formulation of key policies to them. He appears largely ambivalent about the contents of important legislation, satisfied to simply sign someone else’s bill.
On the $787 billion stimulus package, he specified less than a quarter of the bill’s spending and let House Appropriations Chairman Dave Obey decide the rest. On cap and trade, Mr. Obama is comfortable to let Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman and Edward Markey write that legislation with virtually no White House guidance. On health care, the White House is providing very little detail. Mr. Obama tees up an issue, but leaves its execution to congressional Democrats.
This leadership style may be a carryover from his Senate years, when he was unusually detached from the substance of legislation. Mr. Obama’s focus on broad descriptions of a goal will produce laws, but handing over control of the process may produce deeply flawed products.
The stimulus bill turned into a liberal spending wish list that will retard, not hasten, recovery. Already, with mounting job losses the gap between the 3.675 million jobs he said he would create or protect in his first two years and the number of actual jobs in the economy has risen to nearly five million. Reaching his job target now requires creating 249,400 new jobs a month for the next 20 months. Democrats will not fare well in next year’s elections if there is a yawning Obama “job gap.”
Democratic congressional leaders are ecstatic about Mr. Obama’s willingness to outsource major legislation to them. They thrive on sausage making and, with the president’s popularity high, they appreciate that his strengths are not their strengths. Yet Mr. Obama clearly did not gain their respect for his legislative abilities during his Senate years.
Mr. Obama is a great face for the Democratic Party. He is its best salesman and most persuasive advocate. But he is beginning to leave the impression that he is more concerned with the aesthetics of policy rather than its contents. In the long run, substance and consequences define a presidency more than signing ceremonies and photo-ops. In his first 100 days, Mr. Obama has put the fate of his presidency in the hands of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He may come to regret that decision.
Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.