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April 29th, 2009
11:59 PM ET

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

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. Glenn

    We finally have a president that gives the ideals of Thomas Jefferson a distinct possibility of being applied to all of our nation's citizenry. He is a wonder in walking the fine line between liberals and conservatives. True, there are those that appear to hate him for simply ending white male rule in this country, but the election clearly showed that a majority of the nation is ready for real change and they selected the best candidate to make it reality.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:25 pm |
  2. John Eberhard

    David, as usual you did a unbiaed brilaint 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 come at a more critical time in the history of the world. I give him a A+.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:24 pm |
  3. Robbie C Newman

    I do not see how we can expect President Obama to fix all that needs fixing in a hundred days when it took years to get us where we are today. I wish we could hear more good things on the new .

    The world would be a better place if we supported one another and see the good in each other rather then reporting all of the bad things
    and people would be uplifted to hear more good things. Everyone likes a pat on the back every once in a while. . Robbie C N ewman

    April 29, 2009 at 9:24 pm |
  4. jaime

    I give President Obama an A+

    April 29, 2009 at 9:24 pm |
  5. mysterious

    God answers prayers. David Gergen wrote a pretty good piece. However, I am so tired of hearing about Reagan. I couldn't stand him. I never saw not one African American during news coverage of his funeral. Not one. I don't even recall seing Condi Rice or Gen. Colin Powell, either. I don't know why they keep comparing Obama to Reagan. However, I believe in our President. He's a man of honest and integrity. I didn't begin disliking George Bush. He earned it. He lied about Iraq. He was careless about New Orleans. He lied abiout the recession. He said he didn't know anything about gas reaching $4.00 a gallon (which happened a few months later). Had the most deaths in Texas prisons. That is just for starters. Then, there's Cheney. I am getting a headache

    April 29, 2009 at 9:23 pm |
  6. Sham Chitkara

    MY DEAR PEOPLE SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE RACE, WHATEVER PRESIDENT OBAMA IS DOING IS GOING TO PROVE WORTHY IN A COUPLE YEARS AND EVERYTHING WILL BE 100% BACK TO NORMAL. TRUST OBAMA!!!!

    April 29, 2009 at 9:22 pm |
  7. Olivia Scurlock

    I am very proud of my President. I believe he can and will overcome what ever is thrown at him.
    -God bless

    April 29, 2009 at 9:22 pm |
  8. Damien

    I hope that the President watches CNN whenever Mr. Gergen is commenting. His perspective is the most valuable on tv.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:20 pm |
  9. Truman

    I give the president an A+ for his address

    April 29, 2009 at 9:13 pm |
  10. JANIS M .FERGUSON

    I think that the Pr esident has gone far beyond the call of duty . The people should be proud of him.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:12 pm |
  11. judy Schearer

    The President is not boring he assumes the American People are intellectually capable of understanding a few details. How refreshing to actually be allowed to be a part of a Presidents thoughts and problem solving. Bring it On.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:12 pm |
  12. Vicky Mcdowell

    The President earned a grade of 95%. I felt his responses were on target with his goals and objectives.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:11 pm |
  13. Pam

    David,
    You are one of the best analyst on CNN, for the same reason as is evident here. Your positions are always well grounded on seasoned experience, logic and objective data. Perhaps most importantly, they are not grounded in political idealogy/partianship. For that I thank you, as I seek objective information to reach my conclusions. I find myself seeking your analysis on a regular basis.
    I find your position here also well founded. President Obama is a Leader and Statesman and does seem to handle a multitude of tasks well. Agreed, he may drop a ball or two, it's not the big ones. Agreed that he is able to elicit the public's 'strength' for the 'struggle'. Agreed that the final analysis will be based on the success of his actions, which appear grounded in his foresight. I do see and believe he is extremely articulate. I also believe that he considers all information, makes sound and reasoned decisions, and is attempting to address the vast majority of issues (that have historically gone unaddressed) which truly go to the very fabric of MY/OUR United States. As always, David, well said, well grounded. I happen to expect history will show him as one of the most influential Presidents ever, but as you say, we'll see.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:06 pm |
  14. Johnh

    100 days is nearly not enough time to describe a man who pulled off the definition of an illusion....I did not vote for him but will give him more then 100 days to prove himself. The American people at this point in our world...deserve that. He has a lot of balls in the air....lets see what happens to fall ...if any. Nice piece though.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:03 pm |
  15. c. wong

    I give the president an A+ for his address.

    April 29, 2009 at 9:01 pm |
  16. samuel

    David,
    To put in plain words, you are a true states man, a real American
    keep up with your great job. CNN is very proud to you.
    Sam
    Linden NJ

    April 29, 2009 at 9:01 pm |
  17. Doug M

    I agree with David's comments and also agree with the praise given to him on his unbiased approach. As I read all these comments, however, I cringe at the poor grammar, sentence structure and spelling. Doesn't anyone ever proof read? Obama's efforts toward improving our country's education system can not come soon enough!

    April 29, 2009 at 9:01 pm |
  18. Craig

    David,

    You are a breath of fresh air. I really respect your opinion and appreciate the fact that even though you are a Republican, you can be very objective in your commentary.

    I wish more Democratic and Republican Analysts could be as objective as you are.

    I support Obama and am a Democrat myself, but it is very helpful to have an objective view from another viewpoint.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:57 pm |
  19. JA

    As a former republican (yes, my party let me down and I decided to fire them) I am very surprised by the interesting comments posted here. Of course there's the usual nuts for whom nothing, absolutely nothing our President does will be right. But there's a growing number of people that are using their intelect (and not their emotions) to analize the administration's actions.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:57 pm |
  20. Shane

    I agree with James Wo. Islamic terrorism is an important issue that does not get the attention it deserves.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:53 pm |
  21. andrea

    I agree completely with Mr. Gergen and I would like to ad the following: this nation has been neglected internally for the last 30 years. We have fallen behind in education, healthcare, transportation, infrastructure, environment, and energy self-sufficiency. We were spoon-fed the "me" philosophy and our social conscience was allowed to die. How can anyone be indiferent to the fact that 1 in 10 Americans lack health insurance. Furthemore, our values had been so distorted that the attempts to provide coverage for every compatriot are deemed "un-American" and socialist.

    I believe that the greatest role this administration will preform will be to repair all, or at least most, of these areas. Thes are not tasks for the private sector. These are social endeavors.

    While our country was allowed to decay, beginning with the re-armament under President reagan in the 1980's, trillions of dollars have been spent in arms and military campaigns overseas. Is America more secure today than it was in 1980? What do we have to show for all our projected power? We are still threatened in our own cities while our children can no longer match the knowledge of children of other countries in mathematics and science and our bridges and roads crumble.

    As Mr. Gergen does, I hope that this government will succeed in its goals, for the sake of all of us.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:52 pm |
  22. Anthony

    I am praying for the President, Congress and our nation. I believe it is far too soon to properly assess anything. The greatest challenges are still ahead for this President and this nation. We had better delay patting ourselves on the back at this time. The times are very dangerous. We have much to suffer before this thing is judged by history...much

    April 29, 2009 at 8:52 pm |
  23. Cablegal

    Good grief. You are President. Stop talking about the campaign.
    The race is over.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:49 pm |
  24. Edith

    I watched our leader, President Obama, tonight , telling us to use good protocol in preventing the spread of Swine Flu. By washing our hands and not coughing into them. Then I watched the entire group of reporters passing around a microphone for everyone to talk into without sanitizing it. This is a true example of "Joke of the Century for the United States of America". No wonder the whole world laughs at us!! This should be embarrassing to all of us.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:48 pm |
  25. vince

    Excellent summary David; you bring a significant degree of credence and validation to your work which is much appreciated given the myriad number of pundits spewing less than concise analysis of the very complex issues of our day. Where there is no confrontation there is no resolution and the President is bringing energy and attention to issues long neglected.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:45 pm |
  26. John Lubeck

    David,

    "By my lights" also, the biggest mistake the president has made is to tolerate the bonuses and other executive compensation that is beginning to pick up steam yet again. Unless Americans listen to people like you and put a stop to this, our economic woes will be prolonged.

    However, I would add that the president has made some mediocre to poor choices for cabinet positions. My guess is that Hillary Clinton will do a fair to poor job at State. Daschle would have been horrible at HHS.

    Overall the president has shown that he is a mere human being, but a thoughtful, intelligent and caring one unlike his horrific predecessors.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:44 pm |
  27. Jason

    I give the President a "B" so far. In his first 100 days he has set a new tone in Washington of a President and a cabinet that seem to be at work around the clock.

    I love how Sec. Clinton has been given the green light to be an individual in her job, not just a lackey who regurgitates what the higher-ups say. She seems enormously popular at the State Dept., and there is no question that she brings gravitas to that role once again.

    That's the thing for me: gravitas. It's a thing that Reagan had, and everyone just knew it, no matter what side they were on. Obama has it, and for all the disatisfied conservatives out there, it's okay to admit that as an asset of their President even if they choose to continue to take their ball and go home rather than participate.

    I'd give a higher grade, but the Obama administration needs more time to let the smoke clear a bit on things like the stimulus. For now, a solid "B" that reflects the restoration of competency in the Oval Office and surrounding team.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:44 pm |
  28. 波風- Penny

    David,

    I truly admire the way that you review everything in an above board fashion. You don't take party into consideration. You are fair and believe in the truth. I greatly appreciate you for that.

    Obama has had a lot on his legislative "plate." Some of the issues he's dealt with were inherited. However, his administration, in handling those inherited issues, did a better job than the previous administration. To me, the jury's still out on how the stimulus did – I'm still not working.

    Overall, I give him an A-...great job on the analysis.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:39 pm |
  29. Nancy

    President Obama has shown he is a man of integrity,courage,approachability, with an innate sense of the needs of the US and the world. He is comfortable in his own skin with an uncanny ability to fully answer questions from his countrymen,his staff and the press straight from his well rounded and full knowledge of the crises we face.

    I am disappointed at his stand on abortion. I challenge him & all here to look at the graphic photos on the National Right to Life site. Health care monies should not be spent for abortion on demand. Use that money for those with no health coverage.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:33 pm |
  30. James Wo

    I think he has done a very good job overall. I am watching closely on how he will do against Islamic terrorism. I don't want the democratic left to influence him too much in the defense policies.

    A-

    April 29, 2009 at 8:33 pm |
  31. Bill Sagraphis

    The best way to descibe Obama's first 100 days would be to use his own administration's new term for terrorism – a man caused disaster!!!

    April 29, 2009 at 8:31 pm |
  32. Victor G

    Mr. Berger, I have long admire you for the non partisan way you seem to have when you make political commnets. You are one of , if not the most, prefer comentarist on television. I like the way you make the commentary about our president. I think you hit it right in the "nails head".
    Hope to continue hearing from you on all the political issues.
    Thanks for your honesty and courage.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:27 pm |
  33. Lisa

    David, your synopsis of President Obama's First 100 Days is the best I've read, because you outline the context in which those 100 days should be viewed. This president has a myriad of probems to deal with, but thus far, I agree he has set a tone of calm that goes a long way in easing the public's fears day to day. I'm not sure that there is any way for him not to "do too much", but from what I've seen I have confidence that this president will search for the best possible solutions for the country as a whole.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:21 pm |
  34. Derek in Seattle

    David,
    I specifically watch CNN to get your opinion on matters above all others. I find you to set the standard for unbiased jounalism with an articulate delivery not capable by most. As a Democrat, I thank you for this piece and and whole heartedly agree.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:16 pm |
  35. Akin

    David you are one of the elder statesman, and you are highly respected, your opinion is right on the money.
    This president will be one of the best presidents ever, he is doing a
    great job, and he will bring peace into this world.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:14 pm |
  36. Gina

    I think he chose so much to take on so much to confuse us to get what he wants passed. From what I can see, he started alot of things, but never put much effort into putting it in place. He's not as popular as what the news media says he is.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:13 pm |
  37. KW

    I am sorry to say that the President is showing his credentials. There are none. He was a community organizer and has never had the experience along with his choices of staff that have the common sense on how to understand the dynamics of running and building and sustaining a business, He and his administration does not know and understand the grass roots of our economy on how to resource and build a healthy business. The only thing they understand is their own experience. That experience is one of feeling that money comes from the atmosphere of there is an unending resource of money from the so call rich. If they only have ever built a business from scratch and understood the sacrifice of money, hours of effort of not even making a minimum wage with the hopes of achiving the "American Dream" in the beginings of building the foundation of a healthy business that employes multiple employees that in turn contribute in that payroll to the tax base to our economy. Unfortunately, there is a mentality to penalize those who even dare to sacrafice and dream to achive and say to bad, we need now to take all your hard work and sacrafice of the past and your achivements now need to be divided to those who have no desire to work or risk to achive. You are seeing an evidence of actions by this administration to push through policy and without transparancey and without anybody having the opportunity to read a bill before a vote! This is not democracy or common sense business! It is the immature inexperience action of an administration that does not have a clue of what they are doing and think that if you throw money at a problem (and they have admitted they have no clue where the money is going) it will resolve the problem. This has been a course of history in this country of waste and the ineptness of the attitude of wasteful spending by our government. The evidence is there! Look at history and look at who is now trying to run our country! This is like getting on an airplane and asking a person who has seen pictures of an airplane to be the pilot to fly you from Chicago to Washington but has never stepped inside of an airplane. This is totally crazy! This is the typical idealistic illusion of not living in a realistic world and with the "hope" that inexperience and knowledge is a better answer!

    Unfortunately the vast majority of people live in this illusionary dream world that thinks and dreams that this is a substitute for reality. I am afraid that the common sense of the few have now been over come by the majority of foolish hopefully dreamers without substance and understanding! Hence we have now burnden our future generations for our past and present transgressions and this will throw this country in to economic turmoil that will bend us to our knees and possibly flat on our face.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:11 pm |
  38. Dawn

    Well I dont give him that good of a grade with America because when he went to Mexico who did he blame over the drugs..American people who did he give help to ....Mexico.When he went to Cuba who did he blame ....American people.It makes a person wonder when he went to these other countries who did he blame.I got news for him when it comes to Mexico if the ones in office would have done their jobs and closed the border Americans wouldn't have had that much consumption.When he went to Cuba,it was Cuba against United States but still yet they blamed the American people.So are we the American people always to blame?Talk about the Swine Flu,they have been more people died in my state from addiction either died of an over dose or died in jail than what they have so far been with this Swine Flu but yet those addicted dont get no were near the attention as this flu does.So over all I give him a C.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:09 pm |
  39. renae

    President obama gets an A+. He came from a senate job to president job with little experience and to all the big big problems that he acquired from day one. He did a lot, we still have to give him some time. A tree cannot grow in one day. We all have to join hands with him to make it work and stop all the criticizims.

    April 29, 2009 at 8:07 pm |
  40. c. wong

    The Treasury Secretary gets an "A."

    April 29, 2009 at 7:38 pm |
  41. Lynn

    David, i have long admired and respected your political views and have to say once again you have summarized this presidency and the administrations performance in a clear, concise and fair manner.

    April 29, 2009 at 7:29 pm |
  42. Beth

    Great synopsis.

    April 29, 2009 at 7:20 pm |
  43. Devin

    I think Pesident Obama has delivered on his promises so far, given the economic and global political stresses. The job ahead for his administration is huge, I don't expect an immeadiate turnaround, that would be unrealistic. I look forward to seeing where we are at the end of his first term. He'll be called a hero or a zero. For the sake of everyone in North America, I hope hero.

    April 29, 2009 at 7:20 pm |
  44. Dave

    I wonder if Obama has the guts to stand up to these globalist like Kennedy did. We can only hope that he makes a good name for African Americans across the nation. Please Obama you have the security please fight for American freedom.

    April 29, 2009 at 7:19 pm |
  45. Shelley

    I think President Obama has done very well his first 100 days. He has certainly dealt with some tricky problems and situations. He's proven to be a leader... calm and in control when needed most. Nothing like the last President.

    I'm looking forward to having health care I can afford in the near future.

    April 29, 2009 at 7:17 pm |
  46. patnap

    Johnny Isaacson and Saxby Chambliss are our representatives. Being republican, they give no support to our president. What they don't realize is that by not supporting our president in anything, they are also letting us down. This state almost voted for Obama and if he had come here one more time, they would have...however, the establishment is strictly republican. Our president has had many good ideas and they could put their anger at their loss aside like adults and voted "yes" on at least one thing. Voting "no" on everything gives them no creditability. We can work together on some things....they just don't want to hoping Obama fails. So far this type of vote is proving nothing and Obama is doing great.

    April 29, 2009 at 7:16 pm |
  47. jjay

    1st 100 days,Obama gets an A- .

    April 29, 2009 at 7:15 pm |
  48. Barbara in Boston

    I'm glad to see you are beginning to feel Obama may pull off his ambitious agenda. In the first 6 weeks or so, I remember you repeatedly saying on CNN that the President is taking too much on, that he needs to focus like a laser on the economy. While I don't want the President to dilute his abilities, I am inspired by his agenda. He is making me feel like real change is truly possible for this country, and helping allay my cynicism about how Washington is always politics as usual.

    April 29, 2009 at 7:12 pm |
  49. Lampe

    How can you say that he is off to an excellent start? In 100 days, he has managed to put our GREAT-GREAT-GRANDCHILDREN in Debt. that's not exactly what I would call an excellent start.

    April 29, 2009 at 4:50 pm |
  50. Dulcie - Denver

    Mr. Gergen,

    As always, I appreciate your wisdom and insight. While, yes, I usually agree with your thoughts, more frequently you give me something deeper to consider and think about.

    Thank you so much!

    –D

    April 29, 2009 at 3:58 pm |
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