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Commentary: Obama's 100 days of problems?

  • Story Highlights
  • Julian Zelizer: In first 100 days, Obama administration encounters rough water
  • He says stimulus bill and flawed nominations are causing problems
  • Zelizer: JFK was able to overcome rocky start, Clinton and Carter were dogged by it
  • He says the stakes are enormous for Obama given huge size of stimulus bill
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By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely on current events.

Julian Zelizer says Barack Obama's Hundred Days are being shaped by debate over the economic stimulus bill.

Julian Zelizer says Barack Obama's Hundred Days are being shaped by debate over the economic stimulus bill.

PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- Tomorrow marks the end of the third week of President Barack Obama's Hundred Days. After what can only be described as a euphoric inauguration, Obama has encountered some trouble.

Despite his effort to court Republicans in the House, he failed to obtain a single GOP vote for the economic recovery package.

The Senate is moving toward an expected passage of a similar stimulus bill, obtaining the crucial support of three Republican senators only by cutting spending by tens of billions.

Given that most liberal economists believed the House version much too small to repair the state of the economy, for many in the Obama administration, these reductions were less than satisfactory.

The wrangling over the economic legislation compounded an already turbulent week when former Sen. Tom Daschle had to withdraw his nomination for Secretary of Health and Human Services, one of several nominations that tarnished the president's image as a reformer.

President Obama is partway through the artificial period that has been used as a benchmark for presidents since Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, when reporters borrowed a term that had been used to describe Napoleon's famous march from exile to Louis XVIII's return to power in 1815.

As I have written in a previous commentary, the concept of the Hundred Days is an invention of the New Deal but it is one that matters politically. Journalists, pundits, scholars, and even voters use them to evaluate the early performance of a president.

There has been much talk about the successful moments from the Hundred Days of the past. But it's also important to pay attention to what can go wrong, even with presidents who were ultimately successful.

John F. Kennedy, who enjoyed strong approval ratings throughout his first year in office, did not have a smooth Hundred Days. Kennedy had been nervous that all the comparisons with FDR's Hundred Days could be a problem.

"This period is entirely different from Franklin Roosevelt's day," Kennedy said. "Everyone says that Roosevelt did this and that -- why don't we?"

His analysis turned out to be correct. Though he had some success, such as the creation of the Peace Corps, much of Kennedy's domestic agenda never got off the ground.

Kennedy struggled because of a narrow election victory and a conservative coalition in Congress who were unwilling to move on issues such as medical care for the aged or civil rights.

Things were not much better in foreign policy, something Obama might consider as he listens to proposals to intensify military operations in Afghanistan. In April, Kennedy allowed the CIA to move forward with a poorly planned invasion of Cuba, which resulted in humiliation at the hands of Fidel Castro: the Bay of Pigs. And then Laos fell to communism.

When Kennedy met with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in June, 1961, the Soviet leader humiliated the much younger president by treating him in threatening fashion.

Time magazine noted that "as John F. Kennedy closed out the first 100 days of his administration, the U.S. suffered a month-long series of setbacks rare in the history of the Republic."

Jimmy Carter suffered through a bad experience in early 1977, though he too remained popular. The biggest problem during Carter's Hundred Days was that he grossly mishandled congressional relations, setting a poor tone for the months to come. Carter flooded Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill with too many proposals, often without coordinating with them.

Bill Clinton wrestled with problems of timing and organization. Like Obama, Clinton allowed decisions in the appointment process to become a bigger story than his policies. He struggled to fill positions in the Justice Department, withdrawing two key nominations.

Clinton also shelved his campaign commitment to deliver a middle class tax cut upon learning the size of the deficit.

Then there was health care, which Clinton made a centerpiece in his campaign. In January 1993, a debate opened up in the administration. On the one hand, Hillary Clinton and her allies wanted the president to move forward with the proposal immediately by linking it to the budget.

On the other hand deficit hawks like Leon Panetta wanted to wait, separating the budget and health care, focusing first on deficit reduction. Obama is facing some of that pressure as he tries to time economic stimulus proposals with his broader plans for health care and the environment.

Clinton tried a little of both strategies, proposing the program early on but then giving responsibility to a task force, headed by Hillary Clinton, that worked on designing a plan for many months without much congressional consultation.

As a result, a draft of a legislative proposal was not completed until much of Clinton's political momentum was gone. Leon Panetta complained that President Clinton had to do a much better job of "picking and choosing the battles he wants to go through."

While Kennedy overcame his rough start and went on to enjoy some of the best approval ratings in presidential history, Carter and Clinton were not so fortunate. While his favorable popularity ratings survived over the long term, Clinton did not really recover from his initial stumbles. In 1994, Republicans took control of Congress and shifted the agenda toward the right.

Jimmy Carter, whose approval ratings were still strong at the end of his Hundred Days, never developed a strong working relationship with Democrats in Congress. Democrats divided during the rest of his presidency, and his plummeting popularity opened the door to Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980.

It is still too early to know what the economic recovery bill will mean for Obama's Hundred Days. His response to the negotiations in conference committee over the next two weeks could be a defining moment for his presidency.

The huge size of this legislation raises the stakes beyond what many presidents confronted in their Hundred Days. On the one hand, Obama might have found a compromise, moving through Congress one of the most ambitious uses of government to strengthen the economy in several decades. If this is the case, the rough patches from the first weeks will quickly be forgotten.

On the other hand, if the legislation turns out to be misguided -- or if it is weakened too much in the congressional negotiations -- and fails to stimulate the economy or provide substantial relief to struggling states and unemployed workers, then this bill could become an albatross for Obama and Democrats.

The failure of the financial bailout legislation of September, 2008 diminished the confidence of many Americans in government intervention, leaving the impression that a lot of money was thrown into a sinkhole. This could happen again. If Obama makes the wrong decisions in the negotiations, he might find himself in rougher waters as the midterm elections approach.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

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