Then-Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama did a prescient thing last October. He told an interviewer from a Colorado radio station that he thought the first 1,000 days, not the first 100 days, would make the crucial difference for his presidency. Obama directly drew the line from John F. Kennedy's inaugural address in 1961, in which he proclaimed the first 1,000 days as the better time frame to measure how effective or bumbling an administration is. Obama and JFK were wise to cite the much longer period. They sought to tamp down the wild public expectations that they can work quick magic and miracles in no time flat.
Obama is well aware that the 100- day burden weighs heavier on him than any other president in modern times. He's young, liberal, untested and black. There are still deep doubts, suspicions and loud grumbles from some people about his competency and political savvy.
The Mount Everest stack of op-eds, news articles, pictorials, Web sites, chatrooms, national viewer polls and surveys, and CNN and MSNBC specials will dissect his words and initiatives for the first 100 days, and nag everyone else to do the same. That puts even more pressure on him to show he's a tough, resolute, effective leader.
In his quip to the Colorado radio interviewer, Obama knew the silliness of fixating on the 100-day time span to brand a president and his presidency as a stunning success or a miserable flop. A quick look at the presidency of his two immediate predecessors is enough to prove that. Clinton bombed badly in pushing Congress for a $16 billion stimulus package. He bungled the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding homosexuals in the military and got flack on his health-care reform plan. Yet, the Clinton presidency is regarded as one of the most successful, popular and enduring in modern times.
Then there's the Bush presidency. He got off to a fast start. At the 100-day mark in April 2001, his approval ratings matched Obama's. He was widely applauded for his $1 trillion tax-cutting program, his "faith-based" and disabled Americans initiatives, and for talking up education, health-care reform and slashing the national debt. But aside from the momentary adulation he got after the 9/11 terror attack, his presidency is rated as one of the worst in modern times.
The 1,000-day mark that Obama, Kennedy and other presidents have cited as the more realistic time frame is not an arbitrary number. That marks the near end of a president's first White House term. The honeymoon is over, and the president has fought major battles over his policies, initiatives, executive orders, court appointments and programs with Congress, the courts, interest groups and the media; battles that, by then, he has won or lost, or fought to a draw. A thousand days is enough time to gauge their impact and the president's effectiveness.
The other big problem with the whimsical 100-day fixation is that it can force a president, in this case Obama, to feel that he must sprint out of the gate to fulfill campaign promises, pass legislation, and burnish up his media and public credentials as a top leader. This carries risks; risks of acting too hastily and making missteps that invite intense criticism.
Obama's dash to padlock Guantanamo, announce big sweeping plans for health care, financial and banking regulation reform, his much-ado-about-nothing handshake with Hugo Chavez, his outstretch to Iran and Cuba, and hints about dumping nuclear weapons from the world's arsenals has drawn heat from the right that he's a reckless tax and spend, debt burdening, free-market wrecker and enemy conciliator. His mixed signals on prosecuting CIA torture cases and retaining virtually intact the faith-based initiatives while ladling out billions to the banks have drawn heat from the left that he's a backslider and beltway politician.
Obama, though, is no different than every other president in the modern era. He is pulled and tugged by corporate and defense industry lobbyists, the oil and nuclear power industry, government regulators, environmental watchdog groups, conservative family-values groups, moderate and conservative GOP senators and House members, foreign diplomats and leaders. They all have their priorities and agendas, and all vie for White House support for their pet legislation, or to kill or cripple legislation that threatens their interests. They'll applaud him when they get their way and bash him when they don't.
President Obama did another smart thing in his first presidential interview with "60 Minutes" last November. He told the interviewer that he took a close look at FDR's first 100 days, and he was struck not by the avalanche of legislation and programs that FDR rammed through Congress his first 100 days but his willingness to do things that were different and that made lasting change.
It will take far more than 100 days for that to happen and for it to be remembered.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, "The Hutchinson Report" can be heard in Los Angeles on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and streamed nationally on http://www.blogtalkradio.com.