April 29th, 2009
11:59 PM ET

Obama’s first hundred days: Looking through the lens of history

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David Gergen | Bio
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Political Analyst

How should one assess the First Hundred Days of President Obama?

I come at this question through an experience of some years ago. After he won the presidential election of 1980, Ronald Reagan asked his transition team to come up with an action plan for his early weeks in office. I was a co-captain of that team with Richard Wirthlin and headed up a research project to study the First Hundred Days of other recent presidents - FDR, Ike, Kennedy, Nixon and Carter.

Let me outline our 3 conclusions and see how President Obama stacks up:

First, the public makes a fresh evaluation of a president the day he takes office. Until then they have only known him as a candidate and possibly as a Senator or Governor. But as soon as he enters the White House, they look at him anew: Is he really up to the job? Can we trust him? Does he know where he wants to go? Do we want to go there too? Or does buyer’s remorse set in?

Some presidents pass the test with flying colors – think FDR, Ike and then Reagan. Others disappoint – think Ford and Carter. From my perspective, Barack Obama has struck most Americans as one of the most promising presidents we have seen. Indeed, a major historian told me recently that “he is the single most impressive man I have witnessed in my adult lifetime” – and I am not at all sure that this historian voted for him.

Obama is smart, steady, articulate, and listens. As Strobe Talbott, head of Brookings, told a journalist about his performance at the G-20, he managed to be a leader without being boss. How Obama maintains his equanimity is one of the mysteries of the day, but he has an inner calm – almost a Hawaian Zen – that is calming for the country. FDR and Reagan brought a contagious optimism to the job that gave people hope; Obama brings a calm that helps to banish fear and gives people strength for the journey.

Second, the First Hundred Days provide an opportunity for a president to put a firm thematic stamp upon his entire administration. FDR became “Doctor New Deal”, and Ike became the man who would bring peace to Korea. By contrast, Carter’s presidency seemed scatted and without a theme, overshadowing people’s sense that he was also a man of high principles and character.

Obama’s early presidency has been a whirlwind, as he tackles a new issue or crisis almost everyday. It is hard to remember a president who has so dominated the news the way he has. By most traditional standards, he is trying to do too much – and is almost certain to drop one or two balls along the way – but I must say that perhaps he can pull it off. Most traditionalists, after all, thought he couldn’t make it to the Democratic nomination, much less to the White House. And what has emerged is a theme of sweeping change – and clearly, that is what voters wanted back in November when they delivered a strong victory for him. Clearly, he has not been as successful at convincing the public that he is on the right track on everything – and nowhere near as successful in convincing people that he is up to the job – but he deserves good marks here, too.

Third and finally, our study for Reagan found that the First Hundred Days are also a time of great peril – a time when presidents make some of their biggest mistakes. Kennedy had his Bay of Pigs in the First Hundred Days; Ford had his pardon of Nixon (a courageous act but one that was badly executed and wound up helping him lose the presidency in 1976). Carter had a small disaster over water projects and a bigger one with the ill-fated way he announced a sweeping plan to achieve energy independence (we never got there).

How does Obama fare here? Well, one has to say that he has been extremely successful in avoiding big, obvious mistakes. By my lights, he has made some smaller mistakes – the way he first handled the AIG bonuses, the way he waffled for a while on the “torture memos” – but he and his team deserve credit for avoiding big, obvious, crippling mistakes.

But we should reserve final judgment on this one, for the truth is that he has set us on an economic course that is extraordinarily important for the country. It may work – let us hope for the country’s sake that it does – but then again, it may not. Will his bailout of the banks really work, or are we facing far more bailouts? What about Detroit? Will the stimulus plan actually work as advertised? Will the economy truly bounce back or just limp along? And longer term, what will come from these annual trillion dollar deficits that his budget will bring in the decade ahead? Good or bad for the country? On all of this, we just cannot be certain yet.

Bottom line: President Obama is off to an excellent start as a leader. He is one of the most promising and impressive men we have had in this office in many a year. His programmatic efforts are also strong, though not in the stratosphere. But we don’t yet have the full story on how all this will turn out. It’s as if we have just finished reading the first chapter and are asked how the book will compare to War and Peace. We don’t know yet. But we do know this: the Obama presidency has become one of the most fascinating and fateful in the history of the Republic.

soundoff (84 Responses)
  1. Monica

    I am a 9year associate at Wal-mart. With this new stimulis package he has giving to the people who make under 250000, we get a tax break on our taxes now. Are we going to have to pay it back when we file taxes next year. I dont think people know how this is going to work and thats why I'm asking you for help. For someone who makes 1200 every 2 weeks and there only taking out $15 in federal taxes. I think thats going to bite us in the end. So I am claiming married at a single rate so I make sure theres enough taken out. So since I am having to change my taxes we really arent getting the extra money. Can you please email me if you have the answers. Or maybe have someone on the show to explain it to everyone cause I know at Walmart alot of us are asking questions. Thanks

    April 30, 2009 at 8:58 pm |
  2. betty

    Mr. and Mrs.President Barack Obama
    A+ A+ A+ A+ A+ A+ in everything

    April 30, 2009 at 8:30 pm |
  3. betty

    we love you Mr. and Mrs. President here in Houston, Texas

    Keep up the Goooood Work

    April 30, 2009 at 8:28 pm |
  4. Vernie

    I think Obama has really made the grade. He really was left to clean up the mess that Brush has left. I think that Brush is the devil. I do beleive that he knew he was creating a mess in our country. The Mexico border has really become a problem for us. And is soaking up all of our benefits and wonder why are we in such a mess. Good Luck President Obama.

    April 29, 2009 at 10:28 pm |
  5. Pam

    Well said, David. I have such admiration for Obama's intellect, calm demeanor, and his understanding of the real America. How can anyone say he's trying to do too much? There's SO much to be done, and not a moment to waste! Let's also remember he can't single-handedly fix our problems; it's going to take all of us. We all need to do what we can – we're all in this together.

    April 29, 2009 at 10:11 pm |
  6. Amin Dosani

    Excellent Job in the first 100 days in the White House. No other President have done it. You get an A++++++++ for this.
    The eight years under Bush and Cheeney were nothing but a gross disaster. They did eveything in thier power to drain this country. I hope the New Attorney General looks into this and prosecute them for all their wrong doings, lies, cheats, mis-leading the Americans, mis-leading the world, accusing Iraq with WMD, accusing Iran, accusing North Korea. They must pay the price.

    April 29, 2009 at 10:08 pm |
  7. Kuruvilla George

    President Obama. Hip Hip Hurrah!

    April 29, 2009 at 10:00 pm |
  8. Rhonda

    When is this man going to stop campaigning and start leading? He is not a statesman! Honestly, taking partisan shots at people who attended tea parties as he travels around speaking, costing taxpayers $ today?!?

    His administration is Amateur Hour! So many mistakes from those in the Administration; so many criminals and tax dodgers in his administration.

    This is scary, folks!

    April 29, 2009 at 10:00 pm |
  9. Barb

    Let's reconvene in another 100 days, another 100 and the end of 4 years. President George Bush had the same approval rating at this point in time.

    April 29, 2009 at 10:00 pm |
  10. Meshal Kayal

    Saudi Arabia loves Obama !!! +A +A +A

    April 29, 2009 at 9:59 pm |
  11. prosanto, Phoenix

    I admire both David Gergen and Obama. I voted for him as he is intelligent, street smart and inclusive. I strongly differ with the President on Islamic terrorism,which must be dealt firmly with force, diplomacy and education her in America and abroad,especially Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. It will take a century to control the Islamic threat.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:56 pm |
  12. Fatima

    I gave president Obama AAA., he gave an excellent speech.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:55 pm |
  13. Ereca Burns

    It was once said that a black man would be president "when pigs fly" indeed 100 days into Obama's presidency. . . Swine flu

    April 29, 2009 at 9:55 pm |
  14. Chris

    I am very pleased with the direction of this country thanks to our new leader. I feel confident in the new administration. A+ to Barack Obama and his administration. A+ to David Gergen, too!

    April 29, 2009 at 9:52 pm |
  15. Barnett

    Great work as usual summarizing David. The fact that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and a veteran team of foreign affairs pros have worked together so well is a testament to Obama as president and to the others as professionals and patriots.

    Obama gets an A, Clinton gets an A, and America made the right choice to end eight dark years with real change!!!!

    April 29, 2009 at 9:52 pm |
  16. nathaniel pace

    I am impressed with your honesty and fairness and unlike many pundits politics does not determine your response on issues thats important to the American people. Your observation of the president press conference was great. Great Job

    April 29, 2009 at 9:45 pm |
  17. Jason

    Great piece here...I agree the president has made a few small mistakes, but considering all that he has on his plate I give President Obama an A+. We all have to remember that no one perfect and he's going to make some mistakes along the way. The small things are so minor though compared to the larger problems such as the economy, the two wars, health care, engergy, swine flu...ect. Obama is doing a fantastic job, especially considering he is getting absolutely no help from the Grand Obstructionist Party. After the last miserable 8yrs I'm happy that American has an intelligent President that we should all be proud of.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:45 pm |
  18. Jon

    Obama: A- .

    Gergen: A+ !

    April 29, 2009 at 9:45 pm |
  19. Alex Duthie

    When Obama is criticised for not getting the Republicans to work with him we should understand that if the Republicans support Obama, they will be committing political suicide.
    8 years of unprecedented prosperity under Democrat Clinton,
    8 years of political and fiscal disaster under Republican Bush, Then 8 years of prosperity under Democrat Obama creates a political suicidal sandwich for the Republicans.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:42 pm |
  20. STEVE in Oregon

    Mr. President,

    I'd waterboard to save your family...

    I wish you would at least to the same for mine !

    Would you have waterboarded a terrorist to prevent 9-11
    and the thousands killed ?

    I give you a " D "...

    My unborn grandchild give you and congress an " F " ...

    April 29, 2009 at 9:41 pm |
  21. kyle

    This blog appears to be nothing but full of sycophants.

    I have to vigorously disagree. Obama is not making any hard choices whatsoever. He is giving everyone every damned thing they want. Just witness his totally irresponsible $3.4 trillion budget. This type of spending, on top of what his party hacks in Congress already passed in the form of both the $870B "stimulus" (misnomer) and the terrible $400B "supplemental", will destroy the dollar. The Chinese are already dumping dollars and shoring up their reserves of tons of gold as they fear the dollar becoming worthless and the US debt becoming totally untenable and unmanageable.

    We are in for real trouble with this guy.

    I thought Bush was irresponsible in spending.

    Obama takes the cake.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:39 pm |
  22. Jim

    Your comments leave no doubt that you analyze critically and constructively. The president has excellent communications skills and understanding of the issues which confront this nation. The issues which confront this nation evolved over the last 20 plus years. Now is the time to work for the common good rather than "me" first.
    The "blue dog" Democrats in the House can help address national issues in a more meaningful manner.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:37 pm |
  23. LynnP

    President Obama is doing a fabulous, outsanding! Folks, America, lets work together, Pres. Obama is going to make it all better, he's is the who must have this journey... Everyone that believes that they are decent human beings and love their neighbors, lets work together and do the Right Thing, we have alot of more living to do, keep the Unity and let's work together. All of you that criticize President Obama, give him suggetions, "don't hate", show some "love", Yes, things are very out of control, but they don't have too be; Praise be to God, we are Blessed by Christ Jesus and All the Glory be to Jehova Jireh, in Jesus Name!! Yes, We DID! CAN! WILL!

    April 29, 2009 at 9:35 pm |
  24. JLSims

    I am encouraged by his foreign relations policy initiatives thusfar, and as mentioned, the freedom that Hillary has been given to be her own person. The bailouts? Definitely a negative, especially in light of the banks actions in raising interest rates on credit even on those who have flawless credit. Additionally, they aren't loosening the purse strings as was the plan. Credit is very much unavailable to all except those holding the top credit ratings.

    My biggest disappointment, however, comes in the form of jobs leaving the country and President Obama's lack of understanding on the issue. He is being lied to and poorly advised if he really thinks these are jobs that we don't want in this country. There are a slew of jobs being lost from the middle class, jobs that pay from $50k to $125k. If those are the jobs that we supposedly don't want, then I am obviously NOT one of the "we" to which he refers. During the campaign, he promised to reward those who create jobs here and penalize those who are sending our jobs out of the country. Until he follows through with this promise, he can count on my vote going to someone else the next time. It was bad enough that he flipped on the FISA issue, but jobs? We cannot survive without them, especially since it has been the middle class who traditionally lift our economy out of the doldrums and back into robustness.

    Overall grade to date: C+ .

    April 29, 2009 at 9:28 pm |
  25. Luanne Pryor

    I agree with Ed Rollins that the preaident has a tendency to talk too much. His answers are always on point but the lengthy explanations do test one's patience. He is much too inteligent to let this happen. He might try a bit of humor. I couldn't help but think of how Jack Kennedy would have reacted, especially to the New York Times" "timesey", too cute question.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:28 pm |
  26. John

    David, as usual you did a unbiased briliant job. My view of Obama is like comparing him to one hundred year storm levels. I believe that a leader comes along every 100 years that so surpasses all others. Obama is one of those leaders and he could not have come at a more critical time in the history of the world. I give him a A+.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:27 pm |
  27. Jan

    What is admirablel about President Obama is - that he appears to really remain committed to his personal core beliefs.

    He does not really waffle - he walks a straight line – and you are free to question him later. But he listens actively, and follows his instincts.

    Heal and blend our diversity, recognize our international friends, and recognize & confront evil AND - do not forget our CHILDREN - like your precious daughters - lead us to a higher plane of our ambitions.

    Godspeed President Obama. There are horrid problems and I thank God that you are at the helm.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:27 pm |
  28. Evol

    David, Excellent article... you are an unbiased journalist. As a democrat you highlight both Obama's ups and downs.. not like others who just look at one side. Obama gets an A! He inherited two wars and a bad economy... we cannot blame him for that. He is trying to remedy the situation and these "talking heads" for the right keep blaming him.. if it was a republican in the Oval there wouldn't be any attacks on him.. but Obama is STRONG and he WILL LEAD us out of this dark chapter in American history..

    April 29, 2009 at 9:27 pm |
  29. Beverly

    I think the president has done an excellent job his first 100 days, and I give him a A+

    April 29, 2009 at 9:27 pm |
  30. Mildred Swann

    President Obana gets an A+ from me. With all that he has had to do just to try and keep our economy going, the wars, car industry, wall street and many more, he deserves an A+. I just heard a gentleman from the New York Times today, and his speech was on the President. It was wonderful. I hope he gets a copy. This was in San Mateo, CA

    April 29, 2009 at 9:27 pm |
  31. John Sutherland

    President Obama certainly deserves an A for tonight's performance.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:26 pm |
  32. Chris

    The man is humble, shrewd, and smart very smart.....I support his policies b/c I support the ambitions, and inginuity of Americans.....there is talent and innovation that will be birthed, and is walking among us now. His main policies will help give all Americans a fighting chance......the rest is up to us all......

    April 29, 2009 at 9:26 pm |
  33. Paula

    David Gergen's explanantion of the first 100 days was an interesting historical perspective and provided a context to view the presidient within this time frame. Aside from his historical persective David's analysis is always articulate and intellectually sound. David is one of the best commentatores in the media and CNN is fortunate to have him. I hope his students appreciate how lucky they are to have him as an instructor.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:26 pm |
  34. Michelle in L.A

    I love that the panel includes both Donna and David. Also Roland. Great panel. Even Fareed nice bonus. and the gentleman that was all for Hillary has even been impressed. I like.... Oh, and I Love John and his wall. Oh and of course u Anderson.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:25 pm |
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