Alter: How Successful Were Obama's First 100 Days?

How successful were President Obama's first 100 days? Let's go to the videotape—and the newsreel. With the help of the economic crisis, Barack Obama has put more points on the board than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, and his public investment greatly exceeds Roosevelt's in constant dollars. The only president he falls short of is Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. Even if you think he's wrong, Obama deserves high marks for articulating a new vision and getting Congress to act. But he still gets an "incomplete" for the term. That's because his ethos is to do "what works." Problem is, we don't know yet what will.

The 100-day frame is a "Hallmark holiday," as Dan Pfeiffer, a White House communications honcho, puts it, a handy journalistic crutch since Roosevelt. Of course, that artificiality didn't stop me from writing a book about how FDR's debut transformed the country. The reason we care is that a president's first few months in office do offer clues about whether he has the tools to handle the job. More practically, it's tough to regain your footing if you stumble out of the gate. You can recover politically, but the chance for great domestic leadership is gone.

FDR came to office with most of the nation's banks already shuttered. This was a blessing because it allowed him to reopen only the healthy ones, a much cleaner way to confront the credit crisis than any plan available to Mssrs. Geithner, Bernanke and Summers. They have to deal with sellers (banks) and buyers (public-private partnerships) that are nowhere near agreement on exactly what those toxic assets (no, I won't call them "legacy assets") are worth. Roosevelt was handcuffed, too. He didn't yet understand that huge Keynesian spending would be required; many Republicans, forgetting that military spending is what got us out of the Depression, still don't get that. In 1933, FDR moved left and right simultaneously, cutting spending by a phenomenal 31 percent (mostly by slashing veterans benefits in half) with one hand while pioneering off-budget relief with the other.

The early New Deal was a similar hodgepodge to Obama's New Foundation. All told, FDR won approval of 15 bills in 100 days that, among other things, legalized beer, regulated Wall Street for the first time, put jobless young men to work in the woods, launched the first farm price supports, eased foreclosures, offered the first bank deposit insurance (which FDR initially opposed) and authorized collective bargaining. Some ideas were stupid. The centerpiece, the National Industrial Recovery Act, was a morale-boosting fiasco that fixed prices and imposed ridiculous regulations on every industry. Washington bureaucrats actually regulated how many times a night burlesque club owner could ask strippers to take off their clothes.

LBJ became president on Nov. 22, 1963, so the first 100 days of his own term in 1965 aren't fully comparable. But the enactment that year of the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, the first federal aid to education, the war on poverty and an immigration bill that changed the face of America (by allowing more non-Europeans in) has not been matched in terms of transforming society. The only significant early achievements in all the years since were Ronald Reagan's budget and tax cuts in 1981 and George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind education program in 2001. More typical was Bill Clinton's 1993 plan for a stimulus bill worth $16 billion. It failed.

Obama's much-maligned $787 billion stimulus, which passed, is actually several bills in one: the biggest tax cut in American history, the biggest infrastructure investment since the interstate highway in the 1950s, the biggest investment in education in a generation and lots more. His budget, which was approved with no Republican votes, shifts a whole range of priorities in a progressive direction and sets in motion a process that will likely lead to major health-care reform this year. Add the other bills and executive orders that seem to get signed practically every week, and the One is moving into Roosevelt's range.

Because no one ever marches for stimulus or a budget, maybe it's easier to assess Obama's achievements by thinking of the people on the receiving end. If you're a woman seeking pay equity, a child in need of health insurance, a nurse trying to avoid a layoff, a $25,000-a-year worker hoping for a tax credit, a passenger who would rather take the train, a group of parents trying to start a charter school, a homeowner facing foreclosure, a cancer researcher strapped for funding, a hiker looking for more wilderness, a small business tired of exorbitant federal loan fees, a historian trying to see some long-secret documents, a young person eager to take part in national service, a prisoner praying to avoid torture, then you got something tangible out of the president's debut.

For all the hoopla, Obama came to the job with unfavorable odds for success. He had no major management experience except his nearly flawless campaign, the success of which has in the past been an unreliable predictor (see Jimmy Carter). But despite a nightmarish effort to get his subcabinet vetted and confirmed, Obama quickly mastered the art of picking the right senior management team and selling successfully to his customers in Congress, the media and the public. His ease with himself and his audiences makes it all go down easier, even when he makes mistakes.

Crisis leadership is, above all, about restoring confidence. Just as FDR got the country believing again in capitalism and democracy, Obama is so far making good on his pledge to navigate in a new direction. The people are responding. From January to April, the percentage of Americans saying the country is on the "right track" went up 23 points under Obama. The figure was flat or down for the previous three presidents.

Polls are ephemeral. Stuff happens, especially abroad, to cripple presidents. Remember LBJ and Vietnam? And at home I'm still worried he'll compromise too much on health care or other priorities. But the president heads into the middle of a rough year with something substantial to build on.