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No doubt Tom Mann, Stu Rothenberg, Charlie Cook and others among my colleagues are spending this week as I am: It is the first 100 days landmark, and I am busy answering regular phone calls from journalists trying to assess the Obama presidency compared to his predecessors.
I suspect we would all agree that assessing any president after 100 days is not worth a whole lot, especially when the benchmarks are FDR and LBJ. The beginning of a presidency is so dependent on the circumstances of entry: Did the president win in a landslide, or by a narrow margin; did he have any coat-tails; was the election one of change or of continuity, both in party and public mood; did the election occur at a time of crisis; was there any crisis that transformed politics during the first months of the new president?
Beyond all those contextual questions lies another reality. A presidency is four or eight years, either a marathon or a triathlon. Measuring progress after the first 100 yards can be very misleading. A runner could stumble badly coming out of the blocks but recover to get a fast time or even a world record over the remaining 26 miles and 285 yards. Conversely, a runner could set the world record for a 100-yard dash and then flame out before ever reaching the finish line.
Still, all the caveats considered, there is merit in looking at how a president has started his presidency, as there is merit in asking candidates for the office to discuss their 100-day strategies should they win. Back in June 1992, I was part of a small panel on Good Morning America, interacting with candidate Bill Clinton. I asked him how he would approach his first 100 days if elected. He responded by pointing to his new comprehensive policy guidebook, Putting People First, which had a full agenda for at least four years, if not eight, and said he would do all of that in his first 100 days.
When I pointed out to him that he sounded a lot like Jimmy Carter, who put out an overloaded agenda at the beginning of his presidency, causing gridlock on Capitol Hill and frittering away his early opportunities, Clinton uncharacteristically was at a loss; this was clearly not a subject he had thought about (and it was not a subject that dominated his thinking in the months after the 1992 election either). Some of the early stumbles that resulted plagued the first two years of his presidency.
At the end of the first 100 days, it is worth asking questions like these:
Did the newly elected president treat the first 100 days as beginning the day after the election, or starting at noon on Jan. 20? Smart presidents who squeeze the most out of the first part of their terms avoid the temptation to coast, relax and take a few leisurely victory laps after the grueling campaign.