President Obama leaves many questions unanswered after 100 days, but he's already doing better than JFK and Lincoln, who got off to disastrous starts en route to greatness.
There’s no question Obama's gotten off to a strong, promising start and certainly a better start than either Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy, two people to whom he's often compared. He's conveyed authority, he's done what he does best, which is to be himself, but it's still far too early to figure out what's to come, in part because of how he's handled things.
He's kicked a lot into the future, mainly the big economic problem: the banks. We don't have an idea what's going on there and we're getting sort of holding actions in a way. There are steps being taken like the stress tests, but he still has some tough decisions to make and he is holding off making them for whatever reason. It's not a criticism, but if there’s a style here it's to wait. Likewise in foreign policy, I think his greatest achievement has been to restore diplomacy at a time when it had almost broken down, where American arrogance was such that the rest of the world didn't have much of a sense where it stood in relation to the U.S. and whether the U.S. respected it at all. That’s much to his credit. That said, there's still a huge decision to make about Afghanistan: Is victory in Afghanistan really possible? That's a tough decision, but he'll have to make it sooner rather than later.
He's certainly done a lot to exorcise the whole Reagan era, and this is him at his best. The magical market has lost the mandate of heaven and he's done a lot to move that along. Without getting too bogged down in blaming people, though the polls sometimes push him to do that, he certainly has taken us into a different era regarding the fundamental relationship between the government and the economy. We're no longer in Reaganland, so he's done that, but by the same token, health care has been kicked forward. The more ambitious programs he's talked about, it's good to hear them talked about, but effectively all that he's done so far is the stimulus package, which is probably ineffective for the overall needs of the economy.
But this is in the context of a very successful first few months. I'm of the few who sees this 100 Days business as completely artificial. In Kennedy's first 100 days, the Bay of Pigs happened, the greatest disaster of his presidency. With Lincoln, more states seceded when he became president. He gives his first inaugural address saying let's all hold together, then Virginia walks out with a couple of other states. Then the end of his first 100 days is the first battle of Bull Run, which was a disaster. Whatever policy we'll associate with the Obama administration or whatever slogan we attach to it probably won’t be evident now.
Sean Wilentz is a history professor at Princeton University whose books include The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and historian-in-residence at Bob Dylan's official Web site.