Cheer Up, Liberals

Obama is on track to accomplish major changes despite some grumbling from the left.

Charles Dharapak / AP Photo

When contemplating how to evaluate Barack Obama's first 100 days, it's important to keep in mind the proviso: Compared to what? Though some on the left are feigning—or perhaps even genuinely experiencing—disappointment at the realization that Barack Obama is a politician operating within the confines of the existing political establishment, it's not clear what they were expecting him to do.

Looking back at 20th-century presidents from the point of view of progressive reform, you find FDR and an agenda fatally compromised by a corrupt bargain with the forces of white supremacy. You find LBJ and the cleansing of Jim Crow jostling awkwardly side-by-side with Vietnam. And it's downhill from there. Realistically, if the health-care and education proposals in Obama's 2010 budget pass Congress—and there's good reason to believe they will—Obama will have achieved more in a few months than Bill Clinton did in eight years. Throw in a thaw in the Latin American Cold War, important bilateral arms reductions with Russia, an impressive economic-stimulus package, and an end to the Bush torture state and this looks like a very solid 100 Days.

The tragedy is that it may not be enough. The world urgently needs major polluting countries to sharply and quickly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. And the odds of legislation robust enough to do that obtaining the 60 necessary votes in the Senate look very bleak. That's "political reality" and not a character flaw of the president's. But real-world reality is that the political constraints of the moment are condemning the world to disasters decades-hence that future generations will find difficult to forgive.

Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.

Xtra Insight: Read other takes on the first 100 days from The Daily Beast's all-star team of analysts.