A 19th-century historian called the Middle Ages "a thousand years without a bath." That oversimplified somewhat, but was interestingly suggestive. So is the summation of Obama's opening sprint as 100 days without silence.
Ordinary politicians cannot comprehend that it is possible for the public to see and hear too much of them. In this sense, Obama is very ordinary. A few leaders of democracies have understood the importance of being economical with their demands for the public's attention. Charles de Gaulle believed that remoteness nurtures a mystique that is an essential ingredient of leadership. Ronald Reagan, an actor, knew that the theatrical dimension of politics requires periodic absences of the star from center stage. He spent almost an eighth—a year—of his presidency at his ranch. But when he spoke, people listened. If Obama, constantly flitting here and there, continues to bombard the nation with his presence, he will learn how skillfully Americans wield the basic tool of modern happiness, the TV remote control with its mute button.
Calvin Coolidge, the last president with a proper sense of his office's constitutional proportions, was known, not coincidentally, as Silent Cal. His reticence expressed an institutional modesty: "It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man."
"Men," Coolidge said, "do what I tell them to do—why, is a great mystery to me." Perhaps it was because he did not ask them to do all that much. Unless today's Congress can legislate that there shall henceforth be 36 hours in a day, and unless it can lengthen the year by four months—some liberals probably think Congress can—Obama will soon learn what happens when government's circuitry becomes overloaded.
Toward the end of his first 100 days, Obama heeded the better angels of his administration regarding free trade: He will not press for renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The long-stalled (by organized labor's opposition) agreements with Colombia and South Korea may now advance. Labor's "card check" plan for abolishing secret ballots in unionization decisions in order to make it easier to herd workers into unions cannot currently be passed. Labor is the big loser of the first 100 days.
The last 10 of those days were dominated by Obama's defensible release of what are accurately called the "torture memos." But then came what looked like a willow bending beneath hot winds from his hyperliberal base, which still luxuriates in loathing the Bush administration. Obama shut the door on possible prosecutions of Bush officials for authorizing torture, then two days later he left the door ajar. But to read the memos is to realize what quicksand the Obama administration would step into if it tried to hold the authors of them legally accountable.
The authors' reasoning is dense and unconvincing as it reaches conclusions that leave interrogators virtually unconstrained as to their methods. But it is reasoning and is not easily susceptible to proof that the authors intentionally misconstrued the law. Torture was indeed the subject of much tortured reasoning by zealots among Bush's lawyers, who were determined to hack away at any restraints on presidential power concerning national security. But if meretricious lawyering is a crime, millions of lawyers in our litigious society shall not, in Hamlet's words, 'scape whipping.
And then there is the inconvenient truth that many Democratic congressional leaders, who were not bashful about criticizing the Bush administration, knew of, and were silent about, the interrogation methods. An investigation of the past might crimp the style of some people who are currently grandstanding about the subject of torture.
In Obama's second hundred days, he may make two crucial decisions about health care. More than 70 Democratic members of the House of Representatives have said they will oppose any reform plan that does not include a government insurance plan that would compete with private insurance. Any such plan will arouse fierce opposition from most Republicans, who think it would put private insurance on a path to extinction. So Obama might endorse the Senate's passing such a reform by a heavy-handed parliamentary tactic (with the inapposite title "reconciliation") that prevents the minority from forcing the majority to muster 60 votes. Resorting to reconciliation might provoke Republicans to use the rich resources of the Senate rules to put such sand in the institution's gears that everything grinds to, if not a halt, a crawl.
The trajectory of Obama's presidency might have been determined by what he did in his first 100 days. His budget calls for doubling the national debt in five years and almost tripling it in 10. If the necessary government borrowing soon causes a surge in long-term interest rates, the result will be the 1970s redux—inflation and stagnation. If so, the 44th president will be remembered not as the second iteration of the 32nd (Franklin Roosevelt) but of the 39th (Jimmy Carter).
There were 43 presidents before the current one and there will be many more than that number after him. The nation that elects the 88th probably will remember little about what the 44th did. This does not mean Obama is unimportant. It does mean that he is in the middle of the broad, deep river of history, where the current is strong and will not be much bent by him.