How to Deal With Premature Evaluation

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Perhaps inevitably, and despite my warnings (hard to believe journalists don’t listen to me!), the media is poised to inundate us with an orgy of stories regarding Obama’s first 100 Days as President. As my colleague Amy Yuen pointed out to me, CNN (among many news outlets) is heavily promoting this event, promising that their coverage will equal their election night coverage (see the article in the NY Times Arts section here)!  In anticipation of the onslaught of like-minded news stories on April 29 (the 100th day of Obama’s presidency), and because of the comments from several of you defending the media’s focus on this rubric (see, for example, Olivier Knox’s thoughtful defense in the comments section here) I want to focus on two points underlying my original objection to the use of the 100 Days as a useful metric for assessing the Obama administration’s accomplishments to date.

First, my specific objection has to do with the primary focus on legislative or policy productivity, as of 100 days, as a yardstick of accomplishment. I am not against media efforts to evaluate specific presidential actions during the first 100 days, such as Ford’s controversial pardoning of Nixon.  Nor do I necessarily object to the media evaluating a president who explicitly tries to set an overall tone for their presidency, as when LBJ appealed to Congress (“Let us continue”) when he took office to honor the slain president by implementing JFK’s legislative agenda.  It is the media’s responsibility to take presidents at their word. But this is not what the 100 days yardstick has become.   Consider the following commentary by historian Julian Zelizer (see here):

“When presidents enter the White House, they have approximately 100 days to show what they are made of… . Barack Obama [and his advisers] will have to use their hundred days to build confidence in the government and its ability to stabilize the economic system, taking advantage of the narrow window they will have to get legislation through… .Obama will have to define himself in relation to his predecessor, but in this case by demonstrating clearly to the public what he will do differently, rather than the same, as President Bush. And, finally, the new president will need to find legislation that attracts some support from the opposition to diminish the power of polarization on Capitol Hill and establish the groundwork for future compromise…The one thing that Obama must realize is that those hundred days will disappear quickly. Once they are gone, as Bill Clinton learned after delaying his push for health care reform, the political capital is hard to get back.”

With all due respect to Zelizer, this is, in my view, fundamentally misguided advice, particularly the notion that presidents have a fixed amount of political capital that must be spent within 100 days, or forever lost.  (I will spend a separate post discussing the sources and utility of various forms of presidential “capital”.) But Zelizer’s  is precisely the perspective that animates (or will animate) much of the media coverage come April 29.  How well has Obama showed what he “is made of”?

In large part, media judgments will turn on a focused assessment of legislative and policy productivity.  As I’ve noted, this metric is derived from the celebrated period of FDR’s first three months in office, when he worked with a special emergency session of Congress to pass 15 major pieces of legislation. In reaction to my previous blogs on this topic, several of you have asked – why not use 100 Days? After all, if FDR could do it, why can’t Obama? Doesn’t the nation faces a similar economic crisis as it did in 1933? (I have argued, of course, that the two economic situations are not that similar).  Weren’t both FDR and Obama voted in with strong party support in Congress, after the previous party’s president’s policies were all but repudiated, with the expectation that they would change the direction of American politics?  And didn’t’ candidate Obama all but buy into the 100 days rubric, even going so far as to lay out an informal agenda in a campaign event in May, 2008, of what he hoped to accomplish as president in this time period (see here)?

These are all valid points.  In order not to repeat myself, let me focus here on two additional rejoinders to these questions that I haven’t talked about previously. To begin, let me note an often underappreciated fact regarding FDR’s 100 Days – the legislation passed during that period suffered from some of the same defects that I am warning about today: it was hastily constructed and didn’t always work. Most notably, Congress enacted and FDR signed the National Industrial Recovery Act into law. It essentially sought to bolster the nation’s economy by allowing businesses to form cartels and act in somewhat monopolistic fashion (by agreeing on prices and setting wages), under government supervision.  In the historical glow associated with FDR’s 100 days, we often forget that this particular piece of legislation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935 in the celebrated “sick chicken” case.  Nor did it prove particularly effective in alleviating economic conditions while in place. With hindsight, FDR might have been better off to step back to consider this legislation more carefully rather than pushing it through during his first 100 days.

More generally, I would argue that presidents – and the nation – are almost always better off moving more slowly in dealing with complex policy issues, such as health care reform, or climate policy, than they are in trying to leverage momentum from their election to pressure Congress to pass landmark legislation within this artificial window.  I understand all too well that first impressions matter and that presidents invariably feel pressure to leave their mark as policy activists in this period.  But history is littered with examples of presidents who moved too quickly, too soon, to their – and the nation’s – ultimate regret. I’ve previously noted Clinton’s missteps during his first 100 days, which laid the foundation for the Republican takeover in 1994. To that I might add Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, or Carter’s vetoing soon after taking office of several water projects near and dear to the hearts of Democratic leaders in Congress. But even those presidents who are often cited for the successful way they approached the 100 days do not always deserve these accolades. For example, Ronald Reagan used his 100 days – including public outpouring of support after the failed assassination attempt – to push through Congress a package of tax and spending cuts.  But during negotiations with Democrats to enact this legislation, Reagan was forced to make budgetary concessions that threw his deficit projections dangerously out of whack. When the bond markets reacted negatively to the budget projections, with the clear indications of deeper deficits, the nation’s economy slipped into a recession, and Reagan was forced to go back to Congress to raise revenue during the next legislative session.

My point is that legislative action for action’s sake – often under the duress imposed by the 100 Day yardstick – serves no one’s interest, not even the president’s, in the long run, particularly when dealing with complex policy areas. Why not take the time to do the job right?  And why not tell the media – and the public – exactly that?  Why not go on television and say, “These problems facing our nation are too complex, and too important, to be addressed in three months.  Instead, I am going to work with Congress to make sure we get this right.”  That, in my view, would demonstrate the true mettle of the man.

When I make this argument with journalists (and I have done it several times in the last few days!), the frequent response is: Well, if not 100 days, then when should we evaluate a president?  My answer is to cite the Constitution.  That document gives presidents four years in office before they are held accountable by the voters.  That seems a reasonable standard to me.  If the media can’t wait that long, then the first midterm election – although not really a referendum on the president so much as on the Congress’ ability to work with the president – serves as a reasonable first approximation.  That at least gives presidents and Congress a bit more breathing space to pass legislation, and to begin to sees its effects, positive or negative.  But 100 Days?  That’s a premature evaluation that serves no useful purpose.

One Response to How to Deal With Premature Evaluation

  1. Olivier Knox says:

    The Obama schedule for April 29: a “town hall” meeting in St Louis to take questions from voters and then a prime-time press conference at the White House. To paraphrase Rumsfeld, you run the White House with the media you have, not the media you wish you had.

    You raise the point of elections, both the 2010 midterms and the 2012 presidential, as more legitimate points for comparison (I would tend to use the end of this legislative session as the earliest formal marker, but no matter).

    There is, I think, a natural gap in the perspectives of historians (and political scientists) and reporters, particularly the news wire hacks like me who are constantly filing stories, and updating them. The public’s image of Obama is a constantly updated and altered phenomenon. It will not wait for legislative proposals or victories, it will not wait for elections down the road, it will not wait for the 100 Days feeding frenzy. The process is accelerating as the news cycle accelerates, of course. (I just realized that I’m not sure what’s faster than “constantly updated,” but no matter). Voters take stock of their political leaders at all kinds of moments — the 100 Day marker imposed by the media, or the White House-generated “here’s Bo The Dog!” sorts of events.

    To point to elections as the time when one “should” evaluate a president has absolutely zero capital with me. Elections are accountability moments, fine. And they are famously ‘the only poll that matters’ (I think that this is a lie, but whatever). But people consume political news, and therefore reach political judgments, all the time. If anything, the 100 Days is an artificially LONG time for judging a president. (Yes, yes, that last point was meant to be deliberately provocative).

    Here’s a question for you, though, Professor Dickinson: In what manner have 100-Day assessments (wrongheaded or not) shaped presidencies?

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