Passing Judgment

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 2009; 9:34 AM

Gentlemen, start your engines.

We are now on the 95th day of Barack Obama's presidency, and that revving sound you hear is the machinery of the media-industrial complex, gearing up for the Big Day.

There will be special sections, news analyses, cable logos and round-the-clock chatter as journalists race into their 100-day evaluations. This arbitrary benchmark has become nothing less than another opportunity for media marketing.

Some have already crossed the finish line, because, really, why wait for 100 days when you can scoop your colleagues on Day 89?

White House officials, I can tell you, find the whole exercise to be rather pointless but have decided they have no choice but to play. If every reporter, anchor, columnist, host and blogger is going to be offering sweeping judgments on the Obama presidency, they want to accentuate the positive. That is why they disclosed late yesterday that the president will be holding a news conference on Wednesday, where he'll presumably evaluate himself.

Forget about FDR. It takes nothing more than a glance at recent history to see how absurdly premature this benchmark is. Imagine a late-April evaluation of Ronald Reagan, after he had been shot but before he pushed through the tax and spending cuts that defined his tenure or even fired the air traffic controllers. Or Bill Clinton, who was reeling from a series of early missteps before losing the Democratic Congress or righting his ship and cruising to reelection. Or George W. Bush, who was working with Ted Kennedy on education reform and could still lay claim to the uniter label, months before 9/11.

So why do we do it? The media love anniversary-type stories. They want to feed off the high public interest in Obama, his family and his dog. They are desperate to keep the excitement of the campaign alive. (After all, can they get anyone to tune in for the second 100 days?) They are so hot to trot that cable broke with precedent and started airing First 50 Days segments. So get ready for all kinds of ephemeral verdicts that will inevitably be washed away by the tide of history.

Time is out of the gate with this Joe Klein cover story on 44, which starts with the president giving an economic speech:

"The combination of candor and vision and the patient explanation of complex issues was Obama at his best -- and more than any other moment of his first 100 days in office, it summed up the purpose of his presidency: a radical change of course not just from his predecessor, not just from the 30-year Reagan era but also from the quick-fix, sugar-rush, attention-deficit society of the postmodern age.

"The speech received ho-hum coverage on the evening news and in print -- because, I suspect, it was more of a summation than the announcement of new initiatives. Quickly, public attention turned to new 'tempests of the moment' -- an obscene amount of attention was paid to the new Obama family dog and then, more appropriately, to the Bush administration's torture policy and the probably futile attempt to prosecute those who authorized the practices. And then to a handshake and a smile that the president bestowed on the Venezuelan demagogue Hugo Chávez. These are the soap bubbles of our public life. They have become the hasty, capricious, bite-size way that we experience the world. It has made for slovenly, sandy citizenship.

"The most important thing we now know about Barack Obama, after nearly 100 days in office, is that he means to confront that way of life directly and profoundly, to exchange sand for rock if he can. Whether you agree with him or not -- whether you think he is too ambitious or just plain wrong -- his is as serious and challenging a presidency as we have had in quite some time . . .

"Perhaps Obama's most dramatic departure from the recent past is his public presence: cool where George W. Bush seemed hot, fluent where Bush seemed tongue-tied, palliative rather than hortative. Bush would never admit a mistake, but Obama said the words plainly -- 'I made a mistake' -- when his appointment of Tom Daschle as health-care czar tanked, one of the few significant setbacks during his time in office. (One senses that Obama's cool can quickly turn chilly. 'He is not very sentimental,' says an Obama aide. 'If you're no longer useful, he'll cut you loose.')"

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company