Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Impatient Evaluation

From the time of his Inauguration, I have been fretting over whether or not our obsession with "Internet speed" would corrupt a fair assessment of Barack Obama's first 100 days in office. Even without the benefit of an Internet platform, Elizabeth Drew was there in the March 26 issue of The New York Review with an analysis of Obama's first thirty days, apparently as a reflection of our impatience to decide whether we made the right decision on Election Day (regardless of the choice we made in the privacy of our voting booth). While I appreciated much of what Drew had to say (and wrote as much), I was still concerned with this latest phase of our Internet-fomented culture of instant gratification.

This sense of urgency seems to have infected both the BBC and The New York Times in a big way. The BBC NEWS Web site has enlisted a team of correspondents, most of them based in the United States and all with substantial experience on this side of the pond, to maintain a "100 days diary," which they are posting on their site in ten-day installments. This is not strictly a day-by-day affair, since the most recent entry was posted on Monday (which happens to be Day 70, for those obsessed with keeping the count accurate). (Apparently, the diary is not following the President to London.)

For its part The New York Times has initiated a 100 Days Blog, which they introduced to their readers as follows:

As Barack Obama readies to take the office of president, which of his predecessors offers the best model for getting off on the right foot? The 100 Days blog seeks to answer just that question during Mr. Obama's first three months in office. Five presidential biographers will discuss the early days of five 20th-century presidents – Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan – shedding new light on the struggles faced by those men entering the Oval Office and comparing their experiences with those Mr. Obama will face in his first 100 days.

Given my "conviction that history can always inform how we think about and act in the present," I appreciate this strategy and have the greatest respect for the team that the Times assembled. Nevertheless, even the best of historians run the risk that their areas of specialty may serve as blinders to some factors while focusing attention on others. This may have been the case with yesterday's post by Robert Dallek, "Can Obama Be a Majority of One?," based on his analysis of Lyndon Johnson. Here is the conclusion Dallek draws about Obama from this point of view:

Unlike L.B.J., he lacks long-time ties to Congressional leaders, which may be one reason his stimulus plan barely made it out of the Senate and many Democrats, including Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, are balking at the president’s proposed budget. In addition, the sort of mutual back-scratching Johnson relied on is out of vogue. Trading pork-barrel grants for Congressional votes is no longer seen as acceptable politics but as unsavory opportunism. Also, Mr. Obama has far thinner majorities than Johnson had and fewer moderate Republicans to woo. Finally, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and deficits running as far into the future as the eye can see are problems that did not burden Johnson’s reach for a Great Society.

These are all good points, but they miss out on one factor that may trump all others in trying to understand the strained relationship between Obama and the Congress. This is what I recently called the "Ghost of Chutzpah Past," the two negative Chutzpah of the Week awards he received for neglecting his "day job" in the Senate while campaigning for the Presidency. I would sympathize with any member of Congress (particularly the influential ones) who would read this as a connotation that Obama never viewed the Congress as anything more than a stepping stone to the White House. Of course he was hardly the first President to follow this path; but unlike previous Presidents, he never really spent enough time in either House of Congress to build up very much "social capital." Now this may just be an affirmation of Robert Putnam's thesis regarding the "devaluation" of social capital in contemporary American society. However, whatever the social theorists may propose, our Congress is very proud of its tradition; and Obama might do well to dig out the obscure text of the fourth act of Colley Cibber's Love's Last Shift and reword it to read, "no fiend in hell can match the fury of a disappointed legislator." He might also consider that every initiative he takes to bring the White House closer to the general public (such as his recent Internet-facilitated "alternative" press conference) is likely to be taken as an affront by those who feel that, following the principles of our Constitution, they were elected to represent specific sectors of that general public. They might see the Constitutional principles of both representative government and separation of powers as being threatened by the Obama Administration's approach to governance. Such a state of affairs would be no healthier than that of past Administration attempts to impose an "Imperial Presidency."

There, perhaps, is where the problem resides with this myopic focus on these first 100 days. So far Dallek is the only historian to have raised the issue of past Imperial Presidencies, and his advocacy of Johnson neglects Johnson's own capacity for imperialist tendencies. Evaluation needs to take a broader view, but that broader view requires more data points from the present to weigh against all the data points handed down by history. The 100-day window may be an arbitrary one; but, at the very least, we should see just how many sample points have accumulated at its termination before hauling out all of our evaluative machinery. Obama himself keeps trying to tell us not to expect immediate change. It would be nice if the press respected this advice, even if the general public is too infantile to appreciate its value.

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