A tension lies at the heart of the Obama presidency. After 100 days in office, the public still seems uncertain how to interpret the historic nature of the election last November.
One camp claims President Barack Obama's inauguration marked a decisive break with the patterns of American politics over the past four decades or so, giving him a mandate to forge ahead with sweeping changes. Another believes that while voters were ultimately fed up with President George W. Bush, the financial crisis, which broke in the fall, played the decisive factor in his election. More than just a matter of opinion, the resolution of this dispute will go a long way toward defining Obama's success, since it will determine how much change the nation is willing to tolerate.
Obama subscribes to the first version of events, which is to say that he seems to believe he would have won the election decisively in November even if there had been no financial crisis at all. In this scenario, the crisis is thought to be merely the culmination of a series of wrong-headed Republican policies over the last few decades, which Obama should now set about to undo.
Under the opposing theory, our emerging economic disaster tipped the election. Consider, for instance, that despite all the hoopla over Sarah Palin and the widespread anger at Bush, the polls between John McCain and Obama right before the crisis broke were essentially even last September. Under this interpretation, Obama won primarily because the voters believed he was better equipped than McCain to get the country out of its specific and immediate financial mess.
To its proponents, this version of events is confirmed independently by comparing Obama's election margin — six points — to the much larger victory margins of realigning figures like Ronald Reagan (10 percentage points in 1980), Lyndon Johnson (23 points in 1964), and Franklin Roosevelt (18 points in 1932). Obama's "mandate for change" pales in comparison.
Whatever the perspective, the administration's first priority should be to jump start the economic engine of the country. But beyond that, the correct course of action is uncertain.
If the opposition is correct and Obama is misinterpreting his mandate, there is not much of a constituency in the country for comprehensive health-care reform, a new energy policy, and most of his other progressive measures — especially until the financial crisis is over. Moreover, under this view, if the downturn lingers or even worsens, Obama runs a great risk of being seen as worsening matters by his failure to understand what got him elected.
Over time, the continuing downturn won't be seen as a result of the politics of the past. It will be viewed as the result of his attempt to implement his own political agenda, much as the congressional Democrats were seen to be more interested in spreading pork during stimulus-bill negotiations than actually stimulating anything.
Time to choose
Despite the current hard times, Obama has had a fairly easy first 100 days. Yes, he's impressive on the stump. But he has followed a president so unpopular that he's bound to look good by comparison, especially every time he announces a change in policy. The massive symbolism of his victory also lingers, as does the media's love affair.