Barack Obama won’t complete his 100th day in office until next Wednesday, but already the reviews and commemorations are pouring in. Obama’s has already been the most closely watched and dissected presidency of the media age, but the 100-day mark has been commemorated with similarly intense media analysis for every recent president.
To look back at the media’s 100-day reviews for the previous five presidents is to recognize a pattern: overall assessments generally break along the expected partisan and ideological lines, but are typically tinged with at least some optimism; no one wants to be accused of rendering a final verdict too soon.
But, whether they’ve been framed in a positive or negative light, the media’s early reviews generally have succeeded in capturing the various policy and stylistic trends that went on to determine the success or failure of each presidency.
For instance, the early reviews for Jimmy Carter were, on the whole, favorable. After 100 days in office in 1977, he scored a 64 percent approval rating, which pollsters chalked up to a surge in support from conservatives who had voted against Carter in 1976 but who had warmed to his governing style. In The New York Times, Hedrik Smith hailed Carter for his ability to rally the nation around him after defeating Gerald Ford by barely two points the previous fall.
At the same time, analysts also correctly noted several early warning signs that would ultimately metastasize and cripple Carter’s presidency—most notably, his difficulties in dealing with his own party’s Congressional leaders and his conservative fiscal policies, which didn’t sit well with organized labor and liberal activists (who would eventually rally around Ted Kennedy in his primary campaign against Carter in 1980). In that sense, the early verdict on Carter—that people wanted to like him but that his own party could be the source of his biggest headaches—proved accurate.
The early review for George W. Bush exhibited similar prescience, which is somewhat surprising considering that no one in April 2001 could or should have anticipated the 9/11 attacks, an event around Bush framed virtually all of his decisions for the rest of his presidency.
Consider a Times editorial on Bush’s 100th day in his office, which offered plenty of the obligatory courtesy that most presidents receive from their ideological opposites early in their terms. And so, The Times noted that Bush’s “sunny self-confidence, even his penchant for bankers’ hours and long weekends, seems to sit well with many Americans. It is a relief, they seem to be saying, to have a president who is not so tiring and omnipresent as Mr. Clinton.”
But the paper also homed in on one of the biggest question marks surrounding the new president: “The issue of how Mr. Bush will handle America’s role in the world is far from settled.”
“One situation to watch,” the editorial continued, “will be the eventual outcome of the tussles between Secretary of State Colin Powell as the diplomatic moderate and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who seems inclined to analyze the world in terms of historic or emerging military threats. Right now, Vice President Dick Cheney is perceived as more in Mr. Rumsfeld’s camp, and the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, perhaps more in Mr. Powell’s.”
Once 9/11 occurred and foreign policy monopolized Bush’s agenda, this exact internal conflict came to the fore—with the Cheney and Rumsfeld side winning out, while Powell reluctantly went along with them before leaving the administration after one term. It’s anyone’s guess how differently the Bush presidency would have played out, and how different the world itself might now look, had Cheney, Rumsfeld and their allies lost the post-9/11 battle for their boss’ heart.
While the threats to Carter’s and Bush’s standing were mostly theoretical after 100 days, Bill Clinton’s problems were far more immediate, something the media had no trouble picking up on. At the end of April 1993, Clinton was sporting wobbly approval ratings, the lowest for a newly elected president in the modern era, with the public increasingly convinced that he was trying to do too many things all at once—and doing all of them badly.
“President Clinton promised to focus like a ‘laser’ on the economy,” a Washington Post story read, “but the first 100 days of his administration have looked more like a light show, flickering from Russian aid to national service, the reinvention of government to gays in the military to Bosnia.”
The Post added that “despite the unparalleled forum of the White House and a mandate for activism, Clinton has moved few Americans to his side beyond the 43 percent who voted for him. He stands with historically high disapproval ratings and approval ratings among the lowest of any elected president at this point in his term.” And The Christian Science Monitor noted that “Republicans look at Clinton’s problems and rub their hands. Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, already talks about the GOP regaining a majority in the Senate in 1994.”
We now remember Clinton’s two-term presidency as largely popular and successful, marred only by a Republican-led impeachment drive that incurred the ire of most voters. But the generally gloomy tone of Clinton’s early reviews was spot-on; more chaos and legislative disappointment (the death of his ballyhooed health care plan in 1994) followed for the next 18 months, culminating in the Republicans’ stunning triumph in the ’94 midterm elections, in which they won not only the Senate but also the House, for the first time in 40 years.
The arbitrary significance of the 100-day mark makes it easy to dismiss the glut of media stories as gimmicky and meaningless. But history shows they are worth reading—as long as you read them closely.