Grading a president after 100 days always strikes me as presumptuous. The only real grade is an incomplete. And as good teachers will tell you, letter grades—as opposed to written evaluations—are inherently arbitrary and misleading.
One thing is clear. If we’re grading on a curve, Barack Obama ranks near the top, just below FDR. In changing course, getting bold things done, setting a tone, lifting our spirits and confidence, we haven’t seen anything like this since Roosevelt. Even Reagan, the great communicator, had a much harder time in his early days, starting with the limousine gridlock of his inaugural. He had to get shot to move his agenda.
Rather than just grading the president, I suggest we might profitably assess our own 100 days. Obama has stormed the national and world stages in his first weeks. But how have we done—particularly the progressives who have such a large stake in the success of this president—in relation to Obama? He has demonstrated remarkable mastery of the powers of the presidency to lead the country. Have we mastered the power of the citizenry to empower the president?
There is sophisticated organizing being done in support of Obama’s agenda. New organizations—most notably the 13-million person Obama for America—and old have joined together to mobilize citizens around the president’s key initiatives. Major groups with large memberships—from unions to MoveOn, community and citizen action networks—have coordinated target lists, messaging and activities. Increasingly their attention is focused on herding Democrats, which will intensify as Sen. Arlen Specter’s decision to switch jerseys makes Republicans even less relevant.
Similarly, on core issues—health care reform, new energy, college affordability, immigration, empowering workers—large independent efforts are underway. The unions and other progressive groups are taking on the corporate lobby over the Employee Free Choice Act. Health Care for America Now! leads a range of coalitions pushing health care reform. Environment and labor groups have been actively mobilizing around green jobs and new energy.
These independent efforts will help define the scope of the reforms, engage the public to support them, and strengthen the hand (or stiffen the spine) of Democrats in negotiations. Neither the public plan in health care nor cap and trade on carbon emissions will survive without popular mobilization.
For the most part, progressives have been happy to support and reluctant to question the popular president. So the fateful commitment of 60,000 troops to Afghanistan was made without much opposition, nothing like that Obama joined when it came to invading Iraq. Human rights advocates did push the administration to open up the shameful record on torture and are now demanding investigation and prosecution. Progressives helped convince the White House to shelve a proposed task force to “fix” Social Security, which would have been bad policy and bad politics. Progressive economists—Krugman, Stiglitz—and journalists—Greider, Kuttner and more—have challenged the administration’s banking bailout, and pushed hard for a stronger recovery plan. The call for a full investigation of the mess—a Pecora Commission—has gained some momentum in both the Congress and the media.
But what Obama has been missing has been an independent, obstreperous citizens’ movement demanding fundamental reform. Roosevelt had the labor movement, the Townsend Clubs, Huey Long, socialists and communists challenging him from the left. Johnson had the civil rights movement forcing his hand.
This kind of opposition isn’t easy. No president likes to face disruption, particularly from what he would consider his base. There are similar stories told about both Roosevelt and Johnson meeting with leaders of the movements and saying something to the effect of, “I agree with you, now go out there and make me do it.” But in reality, Roosevelt wanted to squelch Long and tame labor. And Johnson repeatedly ordered Hubert Humphrey to bring the civil rights demonstrations to an end, saying that they weren’t helping the cause. King got a lot of pressure —to say nothing of wiretaps and FBI investigations—to get back in step.
Yet it is precisely these movements—independent, disruptive, passionate, demanding bolder reform, taking on entrenched powerful interests—that enabled Roosevelt and Johnson to achieve far more than they ever thought possible. The New Deal we remember—Social Security, the Wagner Act, Fair Labor Standards, the SEC and Glass Stegall, progressive taxation—came not in the first 100 days, but as Roosevelt, under pressure from his left, geared up for re-election. The Voting Rights Act surely would not have been passed without Selma and many other sacrifices transforming public opinion to enable Johnson to act.
The absence of these movements on the left opens dangerous space for ersatz populist movements on the right. We saw that with the tea-bag parties that the Fox News Channel huckstered. We’ve seen conservatives conflate the trillions going to bolster the banks with vital spending in the recovery plan to get the economy going. They are weaving a corrosive message that ties big spending in Washington with Wall Street wastrels. The country would be far better served with an angry populist movement that indicts Wall Street but demands greater support for working families and Main Street. But anyone building that movement will have to understand that they might earn respect, but they won’t be loved in the White House.
For citizens, as with Obama, 100 days is too early to judge. In these first weeks, we’ve done a good job of organizing to support key elements of the president’s agenda. But we’ve seen little evidence of a progressive movement that can challenge the limits of that agenda, and rouse an aggrieved citizenry to open up the space for the president to act far more boldly.
Grades for the first 100 days? The president, I’d say, is doing a lot better than we, his supporters, are.