First Impressions Count

One hundred days do not make a Presidency. But that didn’t stop the media circus that unfolded last week. Major networks and newspapers designed “one hundred day logos,” created “scorecards,” and devoted unending coverage to an evaluation of the President’s performance.

The White House continued to insist that the one hundredth day was a day like any other. Nevertheless, determined not to let the story spin out of control, the President held a prime time news conference, ensuring that the White House stamp would be on the stories of the day.

In a sense, the White House was right. The first three months of a Presidency do not provide enough data to predict the long term success or failure of an Administration. But like any other artificially imposed metric, the one hundred day measure (which has been used since the first term of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933), can be useful, if for no other reason than to allow an early assessment of performance, ascertaining patterns of behavior, organization, and style of governance. Like other first impressions, it may prove wrong, but it sets a tone, and, rightly or wrongly, influences later judgments.

During the long 2008 campaign, we learned a great deal about Barack Obama. He set a determined course of action, and with a discipline, unmatched by his initially better known and more experienced rivals, he won. He appeared unflappable, even in the face of unexpected challenges that threatened to derail his candidacy.

He promised to tackle big problems making major changes, leaving no challenge unmet. Recall how during the early days of the financial crisis, when faced with the collapse of the nation’s lending institutions, John McCain suspended his campaign, announcing he was returning to Washington in an effort to impact Congress’ handling of the crisis. Obama rejected this approach and, unfazed, chided his opponent, reminding him that a President would be expected to do more than one thing at a time.

It is with this same sense of confidence and determination to address the multiple crises facing the country, that President Obama has approached his first few months in office.

On his first full day as President, for example, he called Arab leaders pledging his commitment to Middle East peace. On the next day he appointed Senator George Mitchell and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as Special Envoys, following this with a wide ranging interview on Al-Arabiya television reaffirming his determination to achieving peace and improving relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds.

On these very same days, the President ordered the closing of Guantanamo and ended the use of torture. He set strict limits on the role of lobbyists in his Administration, expanded the rights of women in the workplace, and ended decades of restrictions on stem cell research.

The White House also secured passage of a massive “stimulus bill” that was specifically designed not only to spur economic growth and save jobs, but also to advance the agenda on which the President had run his campaign: expanding health care, improving education, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and developing renewable energy.

If this were not enough, President Obama made clear his deadline for ending the war in Iraq, while detailing a new approach to the Afghan War, that now included an effort to stabilize the situation in Pakistan. He also took steps to deliver on his campaign promise to ease tensions and begin a dialogue with Cuba, Syria, and Iran.

In short, recognizing that he had inherited complex crises on several fronts, President Obama rejected the cautionary advice that he focus on one or two, and instead used his first one hundred days to put his stamp on them all. He has governed, to date, as he had campaigned: taking on big issues, while maintaining a dizzying pace, and displaying the same unflappability and confidence and the same intelligence and discipline.

And through all of this, despite a deepening partisan divide, the President has maintained high job approval ratings. He closed out his first one hundred days with a rating of 65%–”averaging over 63% for the entire period–”the highest ratings for any President in recent history. More important, is the impact he has had on the public mood. When, in October 2008, US voters were asked whether they believed the country was moving in the right or wrong direction, only 12% said “the right direction,” with 79% saying “the wrong direction.” Today, those “right direction/wrong direction” numbers are even, at 43%.

Impressive? Yes, but it is only the beginning, and, as the President noted in his news conference, too many challenges remain, too many problems unresolved. The economic crisis can still grow, the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan/Pakistan can worsen, or other crises can yet emerge (i.e. the H1N1 Virus). As I noted in an article shortly after this election, the true measure of a President is not found in his ability to impose his agenda, but in his response to unexpected challenges. In this regard President Obama’s ability to coolly face down multiple crises, maintaining confidence and support of the public, has created a solid first impression of confidence and leadership which should serve him well in the months to come.