The Fallacy of the First 100 Days

Is anyone else really sick of hearing about Obama’s first 100 days? Cable and network news pundits repeat the phrase like a mantra, meant to justify their incessant jabber. News websites and politics blogs have big banners across their site pointing people to their “First 100 Days” section. Conversations around the water cooler count out the days, and discuss what has been accomplished, or not.

As best as I can tell the whole 100 days phenomenon is little more than a constructed timeline, designed and implemented in large part by the media to keep people coming back for more. After record ratings, web hits, and sales during the news-heavy election season, the media needs something to lure people back. In this way, the rhetoric of the first 100 days has simply and slickly replaced the rhetoric of horserace politics that was featured there before.

Instead of routing you to their “Election Center,” websites point you to their “100 Days Page.” Instead of counting down to November 4th, they are counting down to April 30th. But wait, do weekends count? If not then then we are counting down until June 2nd. But wait, are we counting holidays?

And that’s the thing – 100 days is absolutely arbitrary. What can really be accomplished in 100 days and why should anyone – especially the president of the United States – be judged on their performance in that time? We elected him for 4 years (1460 days) regardless of how this first 100 goes – so why the emphasis on these early days (besides ratings)?

Obviously the early part of one’s time in any job can set the tone for the rest of their tenure, but it can also be the place where we make mistakes and learn from them. Notice how, while you’ll constantly hear pundits bickering about whether the first 100 days are going good or bad, you’ll never hear them talking about how we measure success. The over-emphasis on the first 100 days unfairly frames the work of a president in the eyes of the public and forces them to make decisions that are expedient and designed to successful in an effort to show their strength, instead of focusing on using these early days to study the situation at hand and set up careful plans for the next four years. The 100 days phenomenon is just another way that we privilege short term gains over long term solutions.

OK, so the 100 days thing is a gimick. But what really bothers me is the way that the 100 days rhetoric creates a frame with only one figure in it. By becoming laser focused on the new president (and to some extent the first family) the media trains the country’s collective attention on this sole individual and places on them the hopes, dreams, conflicts, and contradictions of a nation. The media chronicles each of the firsts (first piece of legislation, first appointment approved, first executive order, first sleep over in the white house, first meal) from the momentous to the mundane, all accompanied by specialized pundits who offer their analysis. In and of itself this gives a warped sense of priorities, juxtaposing Sasha and Malia’s school lunch menus with debates over the Stimulus Bill.

However, what I find most frustrating about this media obsession is what is left unsaid. By focusing so entirely on Obama’s first 100 days, the media never turns its cameras around to focus on themselves or the vast country around them. What if, instead of creating a daily report card of the president’s every action, the media used that time and money on investigative reports compiled over the course of those 100 days, so that at the end of April (or is it the beginning of June?) the media could give the nation a report card.

How are we as a nation doing at the end of 100 days? What have we done together to get there? This is, after-all, what Obama has consistently asked us to do.

When he accepted the Democratic nomination: “Individual responsibility and mutual responsibility, that’s the essence of America’s promise […] this, too, is part of America’s promise, the promise of a democracy where we can find the strength and grace to bridge divides and unite in common effort […] in America, our destiny is inextricably linked, that together our dreams can be one.”

And in his victory speech: “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term […] This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It can’t happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice. So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.”

And again at his inauguration: “At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents […] Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

While Obama’s use of the royal “we” could be tossed up to pure political rhetoric – a well-worn populist narrative – I would argue that we have seen in his action and in his campaign that his hopes and expectations for Americans are great than that. He does not expect to do all that he needs to do alone, and he is calling on each of us to stand up and do our part. But you wouldn’t know it from the media.

Even as Obama calls on the nation to get beyond “politics as usual” our media is covering him in the same old way. Falling back on the 100 days motif is surrendering to shallowness. It is the cheap and easy option, when what we need is the in-depth often difficult kind of journalism, a journalism that holds both Obama and us accountable. It is our penchant for cheap and easy choices that has led to much of the problems we face in our country right now.

Instead of 100 days of Obama, what if the stories on the news were about 100 days of service? What if the media dug into the tough questions we are facing, and presented some possible solutions for us to grapple with together? It is this disjoint between Obama’s repeated calls for citizen engagement to address the overwhelming challenges we face, and the media’s sole focus on Obama himself, that makes that 100 days emphasis so troubling.

1 Comment

  1. Josh says:

    Just stumbled on this great article by Ronald Brownstein from the National Journal which captures some similar themes…

    From the article:

    “Strikingly, the president would not rule out more direct government intervention if his initial approaches fail. “What you can say is I will not allow our financial system to collapse,” he said forcefully when asked if he was excluding a Swedish-style solution. “And we are going to do whatever is required to get credit flowing again so that companies and consumers can do their business and we can get this economy back on track.”

    In such comments, and his remarks about his willingness to work with or without Republican support in Congress, Obama may be revealing much about his conception of leadership. He was insistent that a president’s responsibility is to resist the daily (if not hourly) scorekeeping of the modern political and media system and keep his eye on the horizon. “My job is to help the country take the long view,” he said. Obama portrayed himself as willing to consider a broad range of perspectives for responding to the country’s daunting problems — “We’re going to… work with anybody who wants to work with us constructively,” he said at one point — and open to adjusting his own course to bring others along or simply to respond to evidence that his ideas aren’t working. But repeatedly he declared that no one should interpret that to mean he lacks any clarity about his goals: “My consistent bottom line is: How do we make sure that the American people can work, have a decent income, look after their kids and we can grow the economy.” Any compromises or course corrections, he argued, must serve those overriding priorities.

    That’s an elastic and responsive vision of the presidency which doesn’t quite match the preferences of either the ideological warriors of left and right, or those who define consensus as simply the midpoint between each party’s traditional answers. It contrasts markedly with the style of George W. Bush, who too often viewed rigidity as proof of resolve. Bill Clinton came closer to Obama’s approach, but even he seemed more intent on proving certain fixed assumptions — that opportunity could be balanced with responsibility, for instance, or government activism squared with fiscal discipline. Ronald Reagan likewise shared an instinct toward compromise, but he operated within a more constricting ideological framework than Obama.”

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