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Obama 100 Days Circus Goes Both Ways -- Through the Media and the Administration

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At the Newseum in Washington, the public rates the president's first months in office. Video by Whitney Shefte and Alexandra Garcia/washingtonpost.com

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

It is, says Joe Klein, a "flimsy journalistic conceit."

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But that didn't stop him from writing Time's cover story on President Obama's first 100 days, part of a vast wave of calendar-driven coverage washing over the media landscape.

"One of the things I've been thinking about is the impatience of the press," says Klein, who noted the conceit in his story. "People cast judgment too quickly on Obama. I'm remembering back to how impatient I was with Bill Clinton, in an unfair way."

The wave crests tomorrow -- the actual Day 100 -- with a full day of cable chatter and, among other observances, a special section in The Washington Post. The notion that a presidential term can be reasonably assessed in just more than three months seems a stretch, especially in light of recent history.

But the strong public interest in all things Obama has combined with a journalistic love of anniversaries to forge a prime media marketing opportunity. The sheer magnitude of the appraisals seems far greater than for past presidents, amplified by the blogging and tweeting of modern media life.

"We are slaves to news pegs," says Doyle McManus, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, which scooped the world by starting its pieces 10 days early. "Since it's an arbitrary number," he says, "who's to say Day 90 isn't just as important?"

McManus looked up the story he published on George W. Bush's 100th day in office, when he credited the new president with "preaching a conciliatory message" and quoted a scholar as praising the administration's "astonishing professionalism." That experience, says McManus, was "sobering."

The trick seems to be observing the ritualistic nature of the effort while joining the press pack. A lengthy Obama appraisal last week in Politico included this "full disclosure": "Politico plunged in with our furrowed brow appraisal of Obama's first 100 days, which will be published on Friday in a special glossy 100 Days magazine."

Yet there may be a silver lining. "I think it's a useful exercise, as long as everyone accepts and realizes you can't accomplish very much in 100 days," says Terry Smith, a former correspondent for CBS and PBS. "You have to spend the first third of the piece justifying the journalistic hook.

"Is it an artifice? Yes, of course. But it produces some interesting analysis."

Mary Matalin, the former Bush White House aide who just signed on as a contributor to CNN, says of her experience with the 100-day evaluations: "We just accepted it as a fact of life."

From an administration's point of view, says Matalin, a 100-day yardstick "can be a useful political tool to promise immediate action." Indeed, "The Obama people have been very purposeful and deliberate about projecting an Obama brand." But, she cautions, "just because it's treated like a moon shot doesn't mean the audience will believe we advanced mankind one giant step."

That hasn't stopped the White House from marshaling its resources. Although Obama's top aides have dismissed the day as a "Hallmark holiday," David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel and Robert Gibbs have made themselves available for a round of interviews.

"If we didn't participate -- talk to the reporters and share information about what's happened -- we would be derelict in our duty," White House spokesman Bill Burton said. "This was a media construct we knew was coming, and have tried to be as helpful as possible in getting reporters the information they need."

But it's hardly a coincidence that the president is holding his third prime-time news conference tomorrow night, or that the Democratic National Committee yesterday released a television ad touting Obama.

"It's a golden opportunity," McManus says. "What could be better than a whole troop of journalists showing up at the door saying, 'Tell us how you think you're doing'? "

Klein concluded in Time that Obama's debut has been the most impressive of any president since Franklin Roosevelt, who gave rise to the genre with his quick passage of New Deal legislation. Klein says this year's assessments are justified because Obama, like FDR and Ronald Reagan, represents "a really major pendulum shift."

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, author of a book on Roosevelt's first 100 days, writes that Obama "has put more points on the board than any president" since, yes, FDR.

Both are liberal columnists, but some conservative pundits have given the president a passing grade, while warning that the real challenges lie ahead. The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes and the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan have used the same phrase: "So far, so good." But the conservative Media Research Center said in a report that mainstream organizations are "in the tank" for Obama and are refusing to report that he is a "socialist."

Some journalists -- even those not writing about Michelle, the kids or the dog -- seem enamored of Obama's style. At AOL's new Politics Daily site, correspondent Carl Cannon writes: "He is as velvety smooth as a cold glass of Guinness, this new president of ours . . . not to mention the good looks of a Kennedy, the even keel of a Roosevelt, the understated swagger of an Eisenhower."

At MSNBC.com, Howard Fineman says that Obama was "born" to live "calmly and confidently on a global stage with the hottest lights and biggest audience. . . . He doesn't seem needy, aloof or afraid. We used to call that 'cool.' "

Callie Crossley, a commentator who works for Harvard's Nieman Foundation, says the coverage is being driven both by the "artificial deadline" of 100 days and Obama's status as the first black occupant of the White House.

"This presidency is so freighted with history," says Crossley, an African American. "There was no way we were going to get around talking about the first 100 days. Every single thing he does has a heavier weight to it. In 200 days, I don't think it's going to lessen."


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