Even before his election, people were speaking of Barack Obama as a “transformational” figure, in ways too numerous to mention. A hundred days into his term, has he already left a large and lasting mark on American history? The answer has to be: No.
Obviously, his status as the first African-American president is significant. And his campaign made huge strides in the areas of management and fundraising: For years to come, political professionals will study how he applied the principles of community organizing to the presidential contest. In other ways, however, his 2008 race brought about less change than the hype would suggest.
While his victory was decisive, particularly when compared with the previous two presidential elections, it was not especially large by historical standards. The popular-vote margin was exactly what one would expect against a party handicapped by an unpopular two-term president and a bad economy. Overall, the election reflected a big Democratic upswing, but that trend was already evident in the 2006 midterm and was going full speed before Obama secured the nomination. President Obama is as much the beneficiary as the cause of his party’s good fortune.
Did Obama’s rise restore faith in democracy to a jaded American electorate? Perhaps, but what’s certain is that his campaign did not greatly increase turnout in the November election. Depending on which measure you use, turnout was either slightly higher or slightly lower than in 2004. And other elections held since November have shown no sign that the campaign planted the seeds of civic renewal. Though some 2009 elections have seen healthy turnout, many others have scraped bottom. In the biggest so far, the Los Angeles mayoral race, turnout among registered voters was just 17 percent.
Before taking office, the president suggested that his campaign network would transform itself into a mighty grass-roots organization that would drive the congressional agenda. Organizing for America (a.k.a. Obama 2.0) made a big show of gathering petitions for his budget proposals, but as any Hill staffer could have told them, petitions mean nothing. The group has had little tangible effect on policy debates.
The president has enjoyed success with Congress, most notably on the economic-stimulus package. That measure will certainly have major consequences, but did its passage prove the president’s ability to lead Congress and the nation in a bold new direction? Hardly. With economic turmoil providing the perfect rationale, he got pork-hungry politicians to write $787 billion worth of hot checks. Not exactly a transformational sacrifice.
During the campaign, the president spoke of changing America’s political culture and healing partisan divides, but the legislative outcomes suggest otherwise. No House Republicans supported the stimulus, and only three Senate Republicans did (one of whom, Arlen Specter, has just become a Democrat). Much of the problem lies with Obama’s definition of bipartisanship: He thinks it means smiling politely before dismissing the other side’s ideas. (“I won,” he explained.) When it comes to social issues such as abortion, his appointments and executive orders show a spirit of aggressiveness instead of compromise. His “outreach” to the pro-life community amounts to a punch in the face.
Overall, his approval ratings are favorable, though about average for postwar presidents at the 100-day mark. Americans always give a new president the benefit of the doubt, but over time, approval hinges on results. If President Obama does manage to remake America, for good or bad, his poll numbers will reflect it.
In his weekly address on Saturday, he promised “new thinking and a new sense of responsibility for every dollar that is spent.” To this end, he said, he has ordered his cabinet to come up with $100 million in cuts. Unfortunately, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that his budget will result in a $1.845 trillion deficit in fiscal year 2009. That’s more than three times as much as the previous largest deficit in American history. Here, at last, is a case where Obama’s presidency has been genuinely transformative.
– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. With James Ceaser and Andrew Busch, he is co-author of Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics.