Ivan Eland: Obama’s First 100 Days: A Mixed Record

Roundup: Media's Take

[Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.]

Attention always focuses on a president’s first 100 days. The media—and the rest of Washington—correctly realize that historically a president’s power is at its zenith during the honeymoon period following his inauguration to a first term. In the American republic, with its sense of fair play and loyal opposition, even presidents that win election by razor thin margins—for example, John F. Kennedy—usually manage to elicit the good wishes of an overwhelming majority of Americans during their first three or so months. Presidents usually try to parlay that initial popular support into policy accomplishments because they know that conflicts of governing will eventually erode such political capital.

President Barack Obama, winning election by a much bigger margin than JFK and being the first African-American president, has huge reservoirs of support among the public. And like prior chief executives, he has attempted to translate that immense popularity into outcomes.

That said, too much emphasis is placed on the first 100 days. In evaluating any president’s performance, the chief executive’s policy record in the subsequent 1,300-plus days is also important. And this record should be evaluated without regard to charisma, intelligence, popularity, or management style. If the president’s policies contributed to peace, prosperity, and liberty, and he didn’t overstep the limited role for the chief executive expected by the nation’s founders in the Constitution, he should be considered a good or great president. If he wavered from these criteria somewhat or a lot, he should be deemed “mediocre” or “bad,” respectively.

Although it is unfair to pass judgment this early on a new president, he can be compared to his predecessors and given interim grades on his various policies.

In the Iraq War, Obama most closely resembles Dwight Eisenhower, who courageously ended Harry Truman’s stalemated Korean War. Obama gets a “B” for accelerating U.S. withdrawal but needs to be firmer about a complete withdrawal of American forces in 2011 and more savvy about leveraging that total withdrawal into an agreement to decentralize fractured Iraq and legally recognize the already partitioned nature of the country. Otherwise, Iraq is likely to resume its ethno-sectarian civil war after the U.S. leaves.

Unfortunately, Obama is not so enlightened on the war in Afghanistan and his policy there is likely to resemble Bill Clinton’s debacle in Somalia—only on a much grander scale. Clinton inherited the limited mission of guarding relief shipments into the Somali civil war from George H.W. Bush. Although the elder Bush had already started the “mission creep” before leaving office, Clinton vastly expanded it by trying to chase down warlords and rebuild the nation. After U.S. service personnel were killed, Clinton ignominiously withdrew U.S. forces.

In Afghanistan, Obama gets a “D” for continuing George W. Bush’s already failed nation-building and drug suppressing missions and then escalating it by adding U.S. forces withdrawing from Iraq. Obama has done this despite his realization that the younger Bush’s attempt to build democracy and fight drugs there was itself mission creep from the limited goal of eliminating the country as a haven for al Qaeda. Obama has pledged to restore the more focused objective and to eventually withdraw from that nation but in the meantime continues the escalation, nation-building, and drug war....

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