Evaluating new presidents after 100 days in office is a bit like reviewing movies after the first five minutes. It would be more useful to wait for the story line to develop. But there are traditions to maintain, as President Barack Obama acknowledged Wednesday night with his news conference to mark the occasion. If an initial grade is due, Obama deserves solid marks.
Despite inheriting two wars and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the new president appears comfortable in a very difficult job. He has provided steady leadership to a country desperate for a new direction. He has not been overwhelmed by the challenges nor timid about pursuing his ambitious long-term agenda while tackling the crisis of the moment. He has angered conservatives for his embrace of activist government, and he has frustrated liberals who want him to be more aggressive. That suggests Obama has it about right and that his progressive approach is shaded more to the pragmatic than to the ideological.
The 100-day scorecard reflects a fast start that compares favorably with any president's since Roosevelt's New Deal. It is framed by the $787 billion stimulus package that should enable Florida's public schools and health services to avoid catastrophic cuts, and by Congress' approval on Wednesday of a $3.4 trillion budget outline that reflects Obama's long-range agenda. In between, the president laid the groundwork for ending the war in Iraq and ramping up the war in Afghanistan. He has renounced the Bush policies of torture and moved to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. And he has remained focused on his key issues: health care reform, renewable energy and education. That would be a heavy load for 100 weeks, much less 100 days.
"I think we're off to a good start, but it's just a start,'' Obama said.
There have been some bumps. There were issues with several Cabinet choices. The administration was caught off guard by the public outrage over the AIG bonuses. Congressional Democrats also momentarily knocked Obama off balance in the debate over how to hold the Bush administration accountable for the torture of prisoners. The president recovered and embraced his preference for devoting more energy to looking forward than backward, and he should stick to it.
But overall, Obama is settling in nicely. His ability to articulately explain his views to audiences ranging from ordinary Americans to world leaders is refreshing. He projects a thoughtfulness that suggests he can adjust to changing circumstances without losing sight of his goal. There is a level of nuance and sophistication in this White House that had been missing.
Looking ahead, the road does not get easier. Obama needs to keep an eye on the stimulus money to ensure it is wisely spent. The president said he wants to get the government out of effectively running the auto industry as soon as possible, but it will be difficult. The bank rescue effort should continue to evolve, and he cannot let up on his push to reform health care. On top of all of that, Obama began his remarks Wednesday night with warnings about swine flu.
The challenges are daunting. So far, the new president is demonstrating he is up to tackling them.