Judging from the questions from White House reporters, Obama’s senior aides have been struggling with the monumental question of whether or not to mark the national political holiday known as the first 100 days.
But that misses the point. Behind the scenes, the real discussion inside the West Wing was not about ignoring or embracing the 100-day festivities, which Obama’s aides happily dismiss as a Hallmark moment.
"It’s very early here to be assessing, evaluating and crediting ourselves—even as we would give ourselves high credit for these early months," David Axelrod said. "This is a marathon, not a sprint, and the problems we face are large and are going to take some time to confront."
Instead their debate centered on a recurring dilemma facing this new administration: to look back or forward, to be sober or optimistic? Whether the issue is torture, the economy, or its own achievements after all of 100 days, the balancing act between the future and the past—between positive and negative—is tough to execute.
Senior White House aides say there were initial plans to pre-empt the 100-day holiday and look firmly ahead to the next 100 days and beyond. What better way to avoid the hubris of a "Mission Accomplished" banner, especially at a time when thousands of Americans are losing their jobs each month? The early plan was to deliver a future-focused speech ahead of the 100 days: They were so forward-looking, they would even beat the 100-day marker itself.
But that was rejected as largely impractical. How could the president look to the future without recounting recent history and his own past? Would a forward-looking perspective sound too much like a collection of predictions and promises? Could they really leave the retrospectives to a media struggling with its own existential gloom?
What they settled on is splitting the difference, a classically Obama-esque compromise in government. To reach their ultimate goal, they need to recount how far they have already made it. The long march to a transformational presidency takes more patience than the press can muster. It may well take more time than any conventional honeymoon in politics. Call it the obstinacy of hope.
“We are proud of what has been accomplished but this is just the beginning,” says Obama senior adviser David Axelrod. “The real effects of it are not going to be fully felt for some time.
“The 100 days is part of our culture so you have to observe it, and we’re participating in it, albeit reluctantly. The reason we’re reluctant is because it’s very early here to be assessing, evaluating, and crediting ourselves—even as we would give ourselves high credit for these early months. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and the problems we face are large and are going to take some time to confront. The challenge always in Washington is to take the longer view in a town that operates on one-hour news cycles.”
Of all the measures of the first 100 days—the legislation and the spending—few mean quite as much to Obama’s aides as the dramatic turnaround in the mood of the country. An Associated Press poll last week showed a plurality believed the country was on the right track for the first time since January 2004, soon after the capture of Saddam Hussein. The only other time President Bush saw such numbers was in the months after 9/11. President Clinton enjoyed something similar at the end of his second term, at a time of peace of bubble-inflated prosperity.
The newly happy mood should translate into economic confidence, but instead it barely translates into political confidence. The reason: The bulk of those right-track numbers come from elated Democrats. More than 70 percent of them say the country is headed in the right direction.
The gap with Republicans suggests there are indeed, as John Edwards used to say, two Americas: just 10 percent of GOP voters think the same. More troubling for the White House: Independent voters, at 17 percent, are closer to Republicans than Democrats on the same question.
The teabag parties are easy to ridicule and the attempt to caricature Obama as a socialist is unhinged. But they illustrate a fringy sentiment to popular Republican thinking that threatens to make it almost impossible for the White House to communicate with those voters.
“You’re seeing significant movement among independents,” insists Axelrod. “But I think the fact that we’ve gone from 18 percent right-track in November to a positive direction now, regardless of the composition, is important. I think there are tangible things that must be done to move the country forward, but the sense of progress and possibility and hope is also important in terms of moving forward and getting from where we are to where we need to be.”
That still leaves those pesky Republicans, whose elected officials have proved immune to Obama’s charms and are unlikely to celebrate a 100-day press conference. “The Republicans have been in the White House more in the last few months than they were in the eight years of Bush’s presidency,” says Axelrod. “What we can’t do, and what they apparently would like us to do, is embrace the policies of the last eight years. The major proposals of their budget are very much derivative of what we have seen already, and most people understand that the last eight years didn’t work out very well.”
In other words, the story of the first 100 days begins with an election that contained no good news for Republicans. That’s the kind of backward-looking vision that the Obama White House is happy to celebrate in Hallmark fashion.
Richard Wolffe is an award-winning journalist, political analyst for MSNBC, and senior strategist at Public Strategies. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine, traveling with the candidate and his inner circle from his announcement through election day, 21 months later. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, will be published by Crown in June 2009.