What Historians Say

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

We surveyed an assortment of presidential historians, who arrived at the same conclusion: President Obama, in both the scope of his legislative achievements and the groundwork he has set for future policy changes, has done more in his first 100 days in the White House than any commander in chief since Franklin D. Roosevelt, who entered office in 1933 amid the throes of the nation's last major economic upheaval. Here are selected quotations from historians and other observers.

INTERNATIONAL APPEAL "I think he's the global president. People all over the world just want to shake his hand, they want to have a photo op with him. There's a sense that he's a historic figure, not just a one-termer. . . . His mettle hasn't really been tested in foreign affairs yet, but he's created a foundation with which to work with other countries in the world quite well."

-- Douglas Brinkley, historian at Rice University and editor of President Ronald Reagan's White House diaries

QUICK SUCCESS "History will judge that he has been astonishingly successful in his first 100 days. The stimulus package helped push major investment in education and health care and seems to have stemmed the collapse of our economy. His push for education reform is going to have a lasting impact on America's education system. The ability to open up and deal directly with adversaries around the world transforms the way we conduct foreign policy and could lead to important breakthroughs, whether in Cuba or Iran. And he has set a tone that is both open yet also persistent in pursuing his goals."

-- Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and author of biographies of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger

TOO EARLY TO TELL "He's done well, but in a lot of areas you just can't tell. . . . On the most important issue facing the country today, which is not just the economy but the banks and how to deal with the banking crisis and the credit crisis, I think we're still a long way from knowing how that will play itself out."

-- Sean Wilentz, historian at Princeton University and author of "The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008"

FAST START "When you look at the Roosevelt administration, Roosevelt moved very quickly, too, to try to set the country back on economic footing. My sense is that Barack Obama has moved as quickly or more quickly as anybody in American history, given the crises he has confronted."

-- Ronald Walters, historian and director of the African American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland

AMBITIOUS "There is a mixture of boldness and measuredness about his performance. He's asking for the sun, the moon and the stars. . . . It's enormously ambitious in many ways, and that makes you think back to the last real economic-disaster presidency, which was Franklin D. Roosevelt."

-- Fred I. Greenstein, historian at Princeton University and author of "The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style From FDR to George W. Bush"

NEW IDEAS "Across the board, he has signaled a willingness to rethink even deeply entrenched policies. There is a freshness and openness about this administration that is very engaging. If you just look at what happened with Cuba this week in terms of how many American presidents have been frozen in fear on the subject of Cuba, and then suddenly Obama is able to suggest a thaw and a rethinking of our policy toward Cuba and a relaxation of our attitude. . . . I think that he's been very fearless and not bound by old orthodoxies. I think that the speed with which he changed the policy on stem cell research shows how open he is to new ideas."

-- Ron Chernow, historian and author of biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller

EASY MANNER "I think we've learned important things about him. When he's made a misstep, as he did with [Thomas A.] Daschle, he took the responsibility for it, which means you learn what went wrong so you don't do it again. He's trying to figure out many ways of communicating with the country, because that's his ultimate strength. We've learned that he knows how to relax and enjoy himself and really figure out ways to replenish his energies, whether it's making sure that his schedule fits his needs by making time for his children at breakfast, going out to dinners with his wife in Washington, the basketball bracket."

-- Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian and author of "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln"

OUTREACH "I'd give him an A for effort and a B for effectiveness. He's had a difficult time working both sides of the aisle. He's tried to reach out to the opposition, not with a great deal of success. He hasn't been quite as successful and effective as I would like to see, but even with that I give him a great deal of credit for the effort he's made and his willingness to reach across the aisle and not be partisan in everything."

-- Edna Greene Medford, historian at Howard University who specializes in 19th-century African American history

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