President Obama's first 100 days: An impressive start

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We're coming up on the 100-day mark for President Obama's administration, so it's altogether fitting and proper, to quote Mr. Lincoln, that we evaluate the chief executive.

First, as background, it never ceases to amaze scholars and public policy pros how much attention the media devotes to this threshold. Perhaps due to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's transformative 100-day period that marked both the start of the New Deal and mixed capitalism in the United States, the media has evaluated every president's performance at this metric, whether in peacetime or in time of war, whether in economic expansion or recession.

Further, media outlets such as the internet newspaper HuffingtonPost.com and AOL, the parent of DailyFinance, even devote special sections to the "The First 100 Days." Perhaps the fact that 100 days is a convenient, understandable, short metric adds to the coverage momentum.

Convenient, comprehensible metric or not, what I try to demonstrate to the college students I teach in political science/public policy is that the 100 days period is not the be-all-end-all in evaluating or in predicting presidential performance. To help students understand this I usually put it in terms that relate to them. I ask: "Would you want me to grade your class performance on just 100 days, or on the length of the semester, including all mid-term exams, the research paper, and the final exam? Almost all of them side with the long-term evaluation.

Likewise with the president: the first 100 days, and first year, are important, but the remaining days and years count just as much.

That said, how has President Obama fared in the first 100 days? In almost every role, President Obama is doing well.

Financial system stabilized ...

The chief successes to-date have been the nearly $800 billion fiscal stimulus package and related administration efforts to both stabilize the financial system and jump-start the U.S. economy. President Obama inherited from President George W. Bush the worst financial and economic conditions since the end of World War II. Further, while it's likely the federal government will have to allocate more capital to both support systemically-critical banks/financial institutions and to continue to loosen credit markets, fits and starts aside, the administration has prevented the U.S. financial system from collapsing. That may not sound like much, but many economists agree the system has come dangerously close to a meltdown twice in the past six months, and a U.S. financial meltdown would have triggered unprecedented economic, social, and political responses and upheavals, both at home and in other nations.

Second, although the nation remains in a pronounced recession, it appears the U.S. economy's negative momentum is abating. Jobless claims appear to be topping, both new and existing homes sales appear to have bottomed, and there are signs that weak business investment and consumer spending have reached their low ebb. President Obama inherited an economy that was losing jobs at better than 500,000 per month for a season, and that fact, combined with unemployment's lag indicator status -- unemployment tends to peak a few months after the recovery starts -- suggest that the job market will continue to get worse for a few months, despite a large amount of stimulus added to the system.

... but job growth remains the key

However, that is not to say that President Obama's presidency will not be judged harshly if job creation does not increase by a lot, and soon. And Obama knows this: President Obama knows that he could do everything right in his administration, but if he does not get this economy moving again, with robust job growth, he will be judged to have failed. And that failure would have electoral consequences.

That may sound harsh. Presidents, after all, don't control the entire economy, so how can one blame solely the president for a recession (or worse)? But that's not how the American people view it. The American people simply say: "There's an economic problem. Fix it."

Moreover, the whole point of American capitalism, also known as corporate capitalism, is to create jobs and increase earnings. The system is designed for it. Certainly the social welfare state is not designed to seamlessly and comfortably accommodate a national unemployment rate of 10 percent or 12 percent. Take job creation out of the U.S. economy and what do you have left? It's difficult to predict how the system would respond to such levels of unemployment in the modern era, and it's best that we never find out.

To be sure, President Obama's conservative critics will have a policy response if job creation does not improve. Would the nation swing back to the right if the job market stagnates and unemployment continues to rise? It's possible, but given other issues and cyclical trends, it's not likely. Would even more liberal voices rise and offer policy options that advocate even bigger changes? We don't know, but recent polls indicate the American people want only enough government to fix the problem, and no more. The latest Gallup Poll confirms this long-standing moderate American value: Americans remain committed to limited government -- not a European economic social democracy -- but that assumes an American economy that's doing well and offering its many benefits.

President Obama knows he has to deliver those benefits to the American people, and there are no excuses: he knows he has to fix the U.S. economy and end this awful recession, which is why the next 1,361 days will be just as important as the first 100.

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Financial Editor Joseph Lazzaro is writing a book on the U.S. presidency and the U.S. economy.

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