Judging Presidents in 100 Days

Tuesday, April 28, 2009; 5:52 PM

Editor's Note: This essay is part of our RePosted feature, where we dig through The Post's archives for commentary that sheds light on current events.

Franklin D. Roosevelt set a high standard for new presidents during his first 100 days, launching a raft of New Deal reforms over his first three months in office. But since, a president's first 100 days have been at least as much about establishing a new chief executive's leadership style as about legislative victories.

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama was Mr. Cool, and that has become an early trademark of his time in the White House. Post columnist Eugene Robinson has called it his "no drama" approach to governing and has even chided the president for not using more theatrics to advance his agenda.

Of course "no drama" doesn't mean Obama has shied away from bold moves -- championing a massive stimulus bill, meeting with adversaries, committing to closing Guantanamo and putting more troops into Afghanistan, to name a few. Along the way there have been some slips. One came when taxpayer-rescued AIG reported it paid members of its Financial Products unit large bonuses. Obama quickly moved past his initial expressions of outrage: "I think the calm and collected Obama is both more authentic and more persuasive than the guy who was simulating anger the week before," wrote columnist David Broder.

But despite some criticism, particularly from the right, a look at The Post's archives reveals that Obama's leadership style has been largely regarded as a strength. How does that compare with his recent predecessors?

Long before Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush was noted for his "tough-mindedness," particularly on foreign diplomacy. "It has not been 100 days of soothing diplomacy or of smooth sailing. The style of this president and his senior aides is too quick and too blunt for that," wrote Jim Hoagland in an April 29, 2001 column. An editorial the day before cautioned Bush: "One of the lessons of the first 100 days is that even at a time of unrivaled U.S. power, a president must listen to the world if he is to lead it." While Obama's diplomatic maneuvering contrasts with Bush's, both presidents carried a similar approval rating at the 100-day mark: Bush with 63 percent and Obama with 65 percent, respectively.

Bill Clinton demonstrated deep interest in policy, most notably health care. But he also was known for his inability to cooperate with Congress. "The opening play of the Clinton presidency may have some of the appearances of amateur night," wrote Richard Harwood in 1993. "It's clear Clinton jogged past his 100-day mark a weaker president than he was at his inauguration," wrote Richard Cohen on May 6, 1993. Some polls had Clinton's approval rating as low as 46 percent at the time.

George H.W. Bush and Obama had at least one common leadership strategy in the early months of their presidencies. Both utilized campaign-style rallies around the country to pitch their ideas. They also both claimed high approval ratings. "What the polls do suggest is that Bush has managed to project a distinctively new and apparently comforting image -- not a Reagan clone, not a commanding figure, but also not the wimp with a mean streak that so many seemed to see not so long ago," wrote Philip Geyelin on May 2, 1989.

Ronald Reagan's first 100 days were known more for the attempt on his life than for any specific qualities or accomplishments. But, like Obama, Reagan focused on the economy. "The remarkable thing about Mr. Reagan's presidency has been his ability to keep it focused single-mindedly on his economic strategy," a Post editorial proclaimed. "To be sure, there's been an element of luck in it. No distracting blowups have come along abroad, or serious political diversions at home."

Unlike Obama, Jimmy Carter was a Washington outsider before he took the White House, a fact reflected in his first 100 days. "Carter has no feeling for institutional political necessity and little visible appreciation of the human, folksy, disorderly relationships that are an important feature of political life on the Potomac," wrote Meg Greenfield in an April 20, 1977 column. Still, in some polls Carter enjoyed a 76 percent approval rating. Joesph Kraft wrote on April 24, 1977: "Carter is quintessentially a presidential leader. While not strongly committed to the issues, he has a superb sense of national mood."

Like Obama, when Gerald R. Ford entered the White House the national mood was to cleanse the oval office of past wrongdoing. But Ford didn't seem to sympathize, instead retaining some of Richard Nixon's former staff. Of the decision, Roland Evans and Robert Novak wrote: "The clear indication is that President Ford appears far more content with the established order in his inherited administration than in boldly striking out for new faces and policies essential to give it a uniquely Fordian quality. Some discerning friends of the President view this failing as the syndrome of a longtime leader of a weak Republican House minority who, as President, has not yet come to grips with his vast new powers, or how to use them." David Broder wrote that, while Ford was relaxed and conscientious, "he is surely the simplest man to occupy the White House in modern times, but the times are not simple. And after 100 days, there is still a question whether Mr. Ford can develop a method of presidential leadership that suites both his character and the national situation."

-- Adam Ross

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