My Sunday print column, tweaked and expanded. Most observers, noting President Obama's first 100 days, appear to have opted for the FDR parallel. I went another way:
On the cusp of his first 100 days in office, the new president is fully embarked on his transformative mission, dominating the news cycle by sheer force of his telegenic cool, exuding confidence and prompting downhearted Americans to feel better about their troubled country.
The New York Times praises his "remarkable political strengths and gifts," particularly "gift for political theater." Meanwhile, his popularity is driving his critics batty; they find him to be a frustratingly elusive target. One alarmed alumnus of a previous administration complains that he "has proposed a huge restructuring of government, and people are actually taking him seriously. The man…turns out to be downright radical."
Such were the initial reactions, in the spring of 1981, to Ronald "The Gipper" Reagan.
But the same descriptives can also be applied to Barack Obama, now on the cusp of his own 100 days.
Indeed, Gipper analogies abound. The newly-released ABC News/Washington Post poll reports that 72 percent of Americans view Obama favorably – the best 100-day showing since Ronald Reagan, or, as the summary put it, "the broadest personal popularity since Ronald Reagan." Meanwhile, former George W. Bush speechwriter Troy Senik says this morning that many Republicans are "fearful of a new president who may prove to have Ronald Reagan's gifts for charming his way into the support of people with whom he is ideologically incompatible."
Of course, all historical analogies are marred by inexactitude. But they can give us perspective on the passions of the moment. Too often, in our hyperbolic 24/7 political culture, every presidential uptick is interpreted as a symptom of eternal greatness, while every downtick is thought to be a harbinger of total disaster. We often tend to overlook the natural ebb and flow of a presidential tenure over time; in other words, it's not always possible to judge a new leader by dint of his first 100 days - an artificial measure introduced at the dawn of FDR.
Reagan was highly visible from the outset – a staff memo had advised that he govern as if running "a perennial campaign" – but he basically focused on just a few big issues, carefully laying the groundwork for massive tax cuts. He didn't even sign his first law until early April, from his hospital bed. He certainly didn't bust out of the gate this way:
Signing an economic stimulus plan, signing a law expanding health insurance for kids and another providing more pay equity for women, shifting the priorities in two foreign wars, demanding historic reforms in energy, education, and health care, bailing out banks, expanding stem cell research, killing sacred cows in the defense budget, talking nice to Muslims, taking on greenhouse gases, touting the benefits of high-speed trains ("Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour," enthused our travel agent-in-chief), doing outreach to Cuba, firing a top car company executive, killing pirates, getting a dog, and whatever else I've overlooked.
Obama's early peripatetic pace is no more a guarantee of eventual greatness than Reagan's more measured pace was a portent of ultimate failure. Yet there are striking similarities between the two men, in terms of their governing styles. Reagan hit many bumps in the road (scandals, economic downturns), but he retired with his popularity basically intact; that's one key mark of a successful president. Obama has the potential to do the same.
Pragmatism proved to be a key feature of Reagan's tenure, despite his conservative ideology. As Reagan biographer Lou Cannon pointed out yesterday on the Times op-ed page, "For all his thunder about the dangers of big government, Mr. Reagan during his eight years in office preserved the core of social programs that were the basic legacy of Franklin Roosevelt." Much to the dismay of grassroots conservatives, for instance, Reagan refused to take an axe to the Social Security entitlements, opting instead to preserve the solvency of the system via a compromise plan endorsed by congressional Democrats.
Cannon noted correctly that Obama has already revealed his own pragmatic tendencies. I can cite all kinds of examples. During his first 100 days, for instance, the president has frustrated many liberals by refusing to nationalize key sectors of the ailing financial industry, opting instead to shore up the private sector. Elsewhere, he has signaled that he won't fight to renew the assault weapons ban that expired five years ago. He wanted to slash farm subsidies by $1 billion a year, but later caved on that.
Obama, like Reagan, is also a gifted communicator who believes in his power to persuade the public and thus frame the political discourse. Obama, like Reagan, is self-confident enough to shrug off criticism, real or anticipated. (Witness his willingness to host the Grateful Dead in the Oval Office on April 13, with nary a care about whether conservative critics would play the permissive-'60s card.)
Likability can be dismissed as a superficial factor, but it's crucial to any contemporary president's success. A personally popular president is typically cushioned during tough times, as Reagan discovered during the Iran-Contra scandal and during the tough times, early in his tenure when the economic indicators were bleak.
When Reagan embarked upon his first 100 days in 1981, the jobless rate was 7.5 percent; on the eve of the 1982 congressional elections, the jobless rate was 10.8 percent. Reagan had initially predicted a four percent GDP hike in 1982; that year, it actually fell by nearly two percent. But clearly, voters were willing to be patient. Reagan suffered only modest losses in the Democratic House (although the Dems did pick up enough seats to override Reagan vetoes), he lost zero seats in the Republican Senate, and the '83 economic recovery set up his landslide re-election victory of 1984.
Obama's likeability could aid him as well. At the 100-day mark (which arrives tomorrow), Obama is more generally popular than his policies; for instance, most Americans like him a lot, but they dislike his bank bailouts and there is some nervousness about the potential downsides of his heavy spending. Republican critics insist that this disconnect between the personal and the policies will ultimately bring him down, but they're forgetting their history.
Back in the '80s, Reagan's persona was always more popular than his agenda. Shortly after he marked his first 100 days, the Gallup poll released this report: "While the public generally admires Reagan for his personal attributes…many people are either dubious or downright skeptical about the effectiveness of the president's approaches to (the nation's economic) problems."
The Democrats spent much of the decade citing such reports. I'd lunch with Democratic strategists who always insisted that "the people are with us on the issues," on everything from the environment to Social Security to health care. They were right about those issues, but it got them nowhere. Reagan's personal gifts trumped the issues.
In the spring of '81, The Times wrote that "his first 100 days have shown that he is a president determined to change the tides of history. The question remains whether his popularity and his claim of a mandate have given him enough strength to do it." He did it. He inherited an economic mess that lingered for several years, but his personal bond with the people proved strong enough to pull him through. And Obama, plagued by severe economic ills but possessed of similar presidential traits, could ultimately weather his own storm in similar fashion.
Charlie Cook, the Washington political analyst, believes that "the public's patience could eventually start wearing thin," and that "the Democrats need the economy to bottom out no later than June 2010 and need evidence of a recovery by midsummer" in order to buoy Obama for the November '10 elections. Sounds daunting. But, based on the early returns, it's possible that the Democrats may have found a Gipper of their own.