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Commentary: Give Obama an 'incomplete'

  • Story Highlights
  • Julian Zelizer: If president were getting a grade, it would be an "incomplete"
  • He says Obama has shown a tendency to experiment on policy
  • Zelizer: President has negotiated stances with his party rather than impose them
  • He says Obama has been more incremental on policy than some expected
By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: How would you rate the new Congress in President Obama's first 100 days? You'll get a chance to make your opinion known on at 7 p.m. ET Wednesday on the CNN National Report Card. Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book, "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism," will be published this fall by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely about current events.

Julian E. Zelizer says the first 100 days have yielded some clues about what kind of president Obama will be.

Julian E. Zelizer says the first 100 days have yielded some clues about what kind of president Obama will be.

(CNN) -- When President Obama moved into the White House, press speculation immediately began about what his first 100 days would look like.

Journalists as well as scholars looked to history to speculate about which models of presidential leadership he might follow.

As we reach the end of the first 100 days this week, Obama remains much of a mystery. If we are talking grades, the best we can give him at this point is an "incomplete."

Given that the first 100 days is only an artificial marker -- it's been used since the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- it is not surprising that it is too early to reach sweeping conclusions about what this presidency will be. It is worth remembering that Jimmy Carter, whose presidency would become deeply troubled by his second year, ended his first 100 days with high approval ratings and positive media coverage.

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But the first 100 days nonetheless offer important clues about what kind of presidency we will see over the coming years. The first trait Obama has demonstrated has been experimentation. Here, he does resemble FDR.

While Roosevelt believed in the importance of using the federal government to stabilize economic conditions in 1933, he also refused to be pinned down by one ideological position or by one set of policy ideas.

During his first 100 days, FDR brought different kinds of advisers into his administration -- from fiscally conservative Budget Director Lewis Douglas to social welfare advocate Frances Perkins as secretary of Labor -- and he introduced a variety of programs to help Americans. The National Recovery Act established voluntary codes for businesses in an effort to create stability in production and pricing, whereas agricultural programs focused on increasing the price of farm goods to help rural areas.

Obama has displayed the same kind of attitude toward governance. His top advisers are an eclectic group, ranging from free-market, globalization proponents like Lawrence Summers to progressive Chicago lawyer Valerie Jarrett.

When the White House proposed the economic stimulus legislation after taking office, Obama told Congress what he wanted from the bill, but then was willing to let the Democratic leadership in Congress reshape the details of the policy as the negotiations unfolded.

Most importantly, he shaved back the overall levels of spending and then agreed to cuts toward the end of conference committee deliberations.

Though he pleased many Democrats with an economic assistance program for the auto industry that saved millions of jobs in the Midwest, the president has postponed action on the Employee Free Choice Act, which includes provisions that would make unionization of workplaces easier. His financial bailout program placed most of the risk on the backs of average taxpayers with the hope of revitalizing markets.

The good news for Democrats is that this flexibility has offered Obama considerable insulation from political attacks. His poll ratings remain strong while Republicans languish with low approval levels. It has also given him room to maneuver with Congress.

The bad news is that, as FDR discovered, this kind of approach opens him up to attack from Democrats who fear that he is too willing to abandon core positions as well as Republicans who want to paint him as a Bill Clinton-like figure who can't be trusted.

The second trait we have seen from Obama has been that he believes in negotiation within his party and is not a top-down party leader. In this respect, the president has emulated the style of President Lyndon Johnson, who in 1964 and 1965 was forced to contend with a Democratic Party much more deeply divided than now, with Southern conservative Democrats, who controlled the congressional committee chairmanships, and Northern liberals, who in the 1960s wanted to tackle problems like race and urban decline.

Obama has thus far dealt with Democrats more like Johnson did with his party than George W. Bush did with Republicans after 2001. The Bush White House did not seek counsel from Republicans in Congress. It generally told Republican colleagues what to do.

Obama has been very careful not to impose his will on Democrats. Most recently, after deciding to release the "torture memos," Obama backed off initial statements that he did not want to have an interrogation commission or seek prosecution after Democrats in Congress said that they might want to pursue such a course.

Obama has asked Congress to pass national health insurance and environmental regulation, but he has purposely not specified what those policies should look like and has given repeated signals that he is open to all proposals.

The value of this type of party leadership is that the president gives Democrats an opportunity to "buy in" to the legislation and eases tensions that might develop between the executive and legislative branches even under united government. On the other hand, the danger is that Obama loses control of the process and that legislators send forth proposals that Obama does not support.

The final trait from the first 100 days is that Obama has taken a much more incremental approach than many observers expected or that many of his opponents proclaim.

Compared with FDR in his first 100 days, Obama has been restrained in his proposals. He has focused most of his attention on the economic stimulus bill, the automobile industry bailout and financial assistance measures.

To be sure, there is much more to come, as was the case with FDR. Obama has proposed a large budget, has made clear he views national health care and new environmental regulation as priorities, and has indicated interest in immigration reform. He has agreed to use the reconciliation process, which prohibits a filibuster, to try to ensure health care reform can withstand any Republican opposition.

But FDR pushed for more up front. In his first 100 days, Congress passed 15 major bills, which included the Banking Act, National Industrial Recovery Act, Civilian Conservation Corps, Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Tennessee Valley Authority, Agricultural Adjustment Act and more.

We'll have to see what happens in the second and third 100 days, which are perhaps more instructive in evaluating a presidency as the shine from the election fades and political tensions over the details of an administration's agenda harden.

It is then that we'll gain a better sense of whether Obama will be able to sustain the momentum of the first 100 days as did FDR, culminating in the 1936 election landslide, or whether he will lose the political strength from these early days, as was the case with Carter.

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

All About Barack ObamaJimmy CarterFranklin D. Roosevelt

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