On Wednesday, Barack Obama completed his 100th day in office, the traditional moment to assess how a new president is doing. In Obama's case, there is much to chew over, ranging from the quick passage of his $787 billion stimulus package to his vast spending programs and the reversal of a number of George W. Bush's policies, including those on stem cell research, climate change, and the harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists, which some call torture.
One aspect of the Obama phenomenon is particularly intriguing and will have a lot to do with how much he gets accomplished over the long term. That's his popularity. Obama's high job-approval rating may be giving a false impression about his ability to get legislation through Congress and to retain the support of the public.
The polls show that about 60 percent of Americans approve of the job that Obama is doing. On the surface, this seems impressive, especially when compared with George W. Bush at the end of his presidency, when only one third of Americans thought he was doing a good job. But that's not the best comparison. Actually, at Bush's 100-day point in 2001, he also had a job-approval rating of about 60 percent. By late summer of that year, Bush's support had faded to 50 percent as Americans started to wonder if his administration was drifting. The attacks of 9/11 gave Bush a special mission—fighting terrorism—and his popularity rebounded, only to sink again under the accumulated weight of economic problems and an unpopular war in Iraq. He left office as one of the least popular presidents in history.
All this should be a cautionary tale for Obama because high poll numbers can be fleeting and unforeseen crises can erupt at any time. But so far, his loyalists remain effervescent. "His numbers are amazingly high," which is remarkable considering the bad state of the economy and the nation's many other problems, says Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher. And there are signs that Obama's optimism is infectious, Belcher adds. Only 49 percent of Americans now believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, compared with 80 percent last year. The uptick in optimism is apparently because so many people, especially new voters, trust Obama to do the right thing. "New voters are looking for practical answers, not ideology," Belcher says.
Another factor in Obama's favor is the failure of opposition Republicans to come up with compelling alternatives to Obama's policies and sell them to the public. The dominant voices in the GOP today are former Vice President Dick Cheney, radio host Rush Limbaugh, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich—three divisive figures who don't appeal to voters in the center. "The Republicans have not been able to knock the administration off track," says Belcher.
And while conservatives increasingly oppose Obama's activist-government initiatives, Democrats and independents like what they see so far, in large part because Obama seems to be thinking big and moving fast. "The way to get to Mount Rushmore is not through theV-chip or school uniforms," says historian Richard Norton Smith. "It's the Louisiana Purchase and abolishing slavery. The presidents who have an after-life are risk takers." Obama knows that he must do as much as he can, as fast as he can, Smith says, because "it's really in the first year of a presidency that you can make things happen."
Smith wonders if the fundamentals of American politics are changing. "Are we any longer a center-right nation?" he asks, noting that voters appear to be moving away from the generally conservative mind-set that has dominated American politics for much of the past 40 years. This goes back to 1968, when Richard Nixon rode to the White House on a wave of opposition to the big-government excesses of the Great Society, desire for law and order, yearning for traditional values, and support for reducing American interventionism abroad, as symbolized by the Vietnam War.
Today, the pendulum seems to be swinging to the left and back toward big government, as greed in the business world is blamed for the recession and the financial meltdown. "For a long time," Smith says, "we worshiped at the temple of capitalism. The temple has been profaned."
Obama believes all of these factors give him an extraordinary opportunity to bring change. Does he have what it takes to prevail over the long term, and will his high-risk policies work? The next 100 days may tell.