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Grading Obama's First 100 Days

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
May 4, 2009

After 100 days, is President Barack Obama making the grade? Based on his performance so far, he earns an “A.” But a degree in presidential success takes at least four years and passing many more tests.
                To his credit, Obama has chosen intelligent, experienced, and skilled aides and has managed them and the government well. He also has controlled his media image, successfully communicated his message, and defined the Republicans as the “party of no.” These two things combined with large majorities in congress have enabled him to pass his stimulus bills, expand the child insurance program, and pass the Ledbetter fair pay act.
                Most importantly, Obama is restoring America’s confidence and improving America’s image abroad. After years of “Bush fatigue,” Obama has demonstrated leadership by clearly breaking with the past by ending torture, promising to close Gitmo, regulating carbon dioxide, focusing more on Afghanistan, expanding federally funded embryonic stem cell research, and apologizing to the world for past transgressions and promising to be more open.
                Consequently, more Americans believe that America is on the right track than the wrong track for the first time in five years, consumer confidence is up, and world leaders are giving Obama rave reviews. This improves the chances that he can enact his agenda, improve the economy, and advance America’s interest.
                Yet to continue to earn good grades, Obama should improve in several areas. First, Obama needs to manage expectations better. In comparing himself to FDR and promising to be a transformative president, he is creating expectations that he cannot meet. In February, Obama asked congress to pass universal health care, reverse global warming, regulate the financial markets, enact education reform, and impose fiscal discipline – this year. These policies are too complex and far-reaching for congress to handle all at once. Failing to meet his expectations will lessen his public approval and damage his reputation with the political elite making the coming years more challenging.
                Second, he needs to more actively engage congress. His style so far is to set the agenda and then allow congress to write the bill. This is useful in that it helps to build consensus. But it also means that he can lose control over the process. Greater involvement in developing legislation with congress minimizes the risk of alienating congress by suggestion revisions after the fact or signing politically damaging bills.
                Third, remember that Teddy Roosevelt spoke softly but also carried a big stick. Obama has done well speaking softly but can he persuade his friends and coerce his enemies? So far, NATO is not sending more troops to Afghanistan, North Korea is testing ballistic missiles, and Iran continues to pursue a nuclear weapon. Listening does not help if you cannot convince others to do what you want.
                Fourth, impose fiscal discipline. A stimulus during a recession is defensible. Trillion dollar deficits after the recession are not. Yet, his stimulus package will raise the baseline expectation for government spending. No one expects his proposed cuts to pass. He underestimates the costs of universal health care. And he refuses to reform entitlements which make up about 60% of the budget. Overall, his economic plan increases inflationary pressures and acts as a tax on the next generation.
                Fifth, return to postpartisanship. Reaching out to Republicans is difficult when you challenge their motivations, use straw man arguments to attack their position, and make false statements about them. The hypocrisy of promising change and then acting partisan will undermine his appeal to independents.
                Sixth, limit your exposure. The times demand Obama take an active role. Yet, his hyperactivity gives him ownership of America’s problems. If his policies fail, the alternative narrative of Obama as a narcissistic celebrity will reemerge and potentially replace his leadership persona. He needs to let others take ownership so they can be lightening rods when things get worse.
                So while 100 days does not allow us to draw definitive conclusions, preliminary results are positive. But the most challenging courses lie ahead, and Obama is not guaranteed to make the Dean’s List.
 

Originally appeared in the Jackson Sun on May 1, 2009