Obama’s First 100 Days: A Mixed Record

Attention always focuses on a president’s first 100 days.  The media — and the rest of Washington — correctly realize that historically a president’s power is at its zenith during the honeymoon period following his inauguration to a first term.  In the American republic, with its sense of fair play and loyal opposition, even presidents that win election by razor thin margins — for example, John F. Kennedy — usually manage to elicit the good wishes of an overwhelming majority of Americans during their first three or so months.  Presidents usually try to parlay that initial popular support into policy accomplishments because they know that conflicts of governing will eventually erode such political capital.

President Barack Obama, winning election by a much bigger margin than JFK and being the first African-American president, has huge reservoirs of support among the public.  And like prior chief executives, he has attempted to translate that immense popularity into outcomes. 

That said, too much emphasis is placed on the first 100 days.  In evaluating any president’s performance, the chief executive’s policy record in the subsequent 1,300-plus days is also important.  And this record should be evaluated without regard to charisma, intelligence, popularity, or management style.  If the president’s policies contributed to peace, prosperity, and liberty, and he didn’t overstep the limited role for the chief executive expected by the nation’s founders in the Constitution, he should be considered a good or great president.  If he wavered from these criteria somewhat or a lot, he should be deemed “mediocre” or “bad,” respectively.

Although it is unfair to pass judgment this early on a new president, he can be compared to his predecessors and given interim grades on his various policies.

In the Iraq War, Obama most closely resembles Dwight Eisenhower, who courageously ended Harry Truman’s stalemated Korean War.  Obama gets a “B” for accelerating U.S. withdrawal but needs to be firmer about a complete withdrawal of American forces in 2011 and more savvy about leveraging that total withdrawal into an agreement to decentralize fractured Iraq and legally recognize the already partitioned nature of the country.  Otherwise, Iraq is likely to resume its ethno-sectarian civil war after the U.S. leaves.

Unfortunately, Obama is not so enlightened on the war in Afghanistan and his policy there is likely to resemble Bill Clinton’s debacle in Somalia — only on a much grander scale. Clinton inherited the limited mission of guarding relief shipments into the Somali civil war from George H.W. Bush.  Although the elder Bush had already started the “mission creep” before leaving office, Clinton vastly expanded it by trying to chase down warlords and rebuild the nation.  After U.S. service personnel were killed, Clinton ignominiously withdrew U.S. forces.

In Afghanistan, Obama gets a “D” for continuing George W. Bush’s already failed nation-building and drug-suppressing missions and then escalating it by adding U.S. forces withdrawing from Iraq.  Obama has done this despite his realization that the younger Bush’s attempt to build democracy and fight drugs there was itself mission creep from the limited goal of eliminating the country as a haven for al Qaeda.  Obama has pledged to restore the more focused objective and to eventually withdraw from that nation but in the meantime continues the escalation, nation-building, and drug war.

Unlike the younger Bush, Obama gets a “B” for realizing that popular opinion in Arab and Muslim countries does matter to U.S. security and attempting to raise U.S. standing in those nations by ending U.S. torture and closing Guantanamo and CIA secret prisons.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to realize that the main cause of radical Islamists being converted to militant Islamist terrorists and guerrillas is the non-Muslim occupation of Muslim lands.  If he did, he would realize that the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan has worsened terrorism by creating a resurgent Taliban (and allied groups) in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Unlike the younger Bush, who reflexively slathered money on the Pentagon for whatever it wanted, Obama wants to buy weapons that actually would be useful in fighting today’s hybrid wars (part conventional combat and part counterinsurgency fighting), rather than keeping on the books Cold War white elephants and futuristic systems to counter imaginary conventional enemies.  Obama gets a “B” for at least trying to get the taxpayers something for their money; to get an “A,” he would need to actually begin cutting the bloated defense budget.  Such cuts would be easier if he wisely withdrew from Afghanistan and Iraq entirely.     

Obama’s foreign and defense policies are not perfect by any means, but they are much better than the abysmal record of the younger Bush.  Regrettably, however, Obama’s domestic policy exhibits a continuity with failed Bush policies that resembles the catastrophic similarity between the activist policies of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression.  Both Hoover and FDR tried to artificially pump up the economy by increasing credit, aiding banks, and increasing federal expenditures, including spending on futile “make-work” public works programs — all of which required the economy to fall farther back toward equilibrium, thus turning a mundane recession into the Great Depression. 

Similarly, Bush partially or wholly socialized financial institutions, and Obama has gone on a public works binge.  They both have increased credit and vastly increased federal spending and regulation.   Grading on the curve, Obama gets a “D” for his expansion of the welfare state, only because Bush gets an “F” for his socialist response.  But if Obama tries to use remaining taxpayer dollars allocated for bailouts to grab an even bigger government ownership share in the banks, he will combine an augmentation of the welfare state with the expansion of Bush’s outright socialism — earning him a “FF” in economic management. 

Once again, these grades are only interim and might improve or plummet during Obama’s next 1,300-plus days.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.