- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009





The media have been focusing, almost obsessively, on President Obama’s “first 100 days,” but it’s important to remember that the presidency is a marathon, not a sprint. Much may get done during the first 100 days, but more than 1,300 days will follow in a president’s first term. What’s important is what the president does with all his days.

If he establishes a legacy of peace, prosperity and liberty, he should be judged a success. If he pushes policies that flout the Constitution, expand government beyond its proper role, undermine our economic and individual liberties or lead us unnecessarily into conflict, he will have failed. And this will be so no matter how charming he may be, how effectively he leads or how many Facebook fans he has.

The first months of a new presidency are important because that’s when a president’s political capital typically is highest, when the tone and direction of the White House takes shape and when his ability - or lack thereof - to work with Congress and get things done will become evident.

But this is not the right success test. A charming, politically savvy president who produces triumph after triumph ought to be judged a colossal failure if his policies are wrong. An example would be using taxpayer funds to bail out failed private companies or pushing massive spending bills through Congress that expand the power and scope of government without benefit of appropriate debate and the checks and balances of the congressional budgeting process.

So judging a president by how he responds to a crisis can produce a distorted result. He may respond with great resolve and political effectiveness - but do the wrong things.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vigorous response to the Depression he inherited from the surprisingly activist Herbert Hoover usually earns Roosevelt high praise. The presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson was shaped in part by his escalation of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam - a bad decision that ultimately cost Mr. Johnson his job. Yet Mr. Johnson is viewed by many as a very successful president because he also declared war on poverty with a multitude of Great Society income-transfer programs.

Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush provided plenty of small-government rhetoric but actually increased government spending as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) and ran up huge budget deficits with a substantial portion of the increases being in non-defense spending.

In fact, most presidential scholars have a bias toward activism rather than outcomes. A president who creates new government programs to deal with societal problems generally will be rated as a better president than one who deals more cautiously - and cost-effectively - with problems. This is true even if the president’s programs do little good or even exacerbate the problems they were intended to solve.

Thus, Mr. Johnson and Roosevelt receive high ratings from most historians, though many of Roosevelt’s economic-recovery programs were wasteful and ineffective, and many of Mr. Johnson’s Great Society programs increased government dependency and made poverty more intractable. George W. Bush added a Medicare drug benefit - the first new social program since the Great Society - to a system more insolvent than Social Security. And while Mr. Reagan is remembered by historians as an advocate of small government, he expanded government substantially.

Like other Americans who go to work every day, presidents should be judged on results - not rhetoric, personality, popularity, preference for basketball over bowling, or crisis management abilities.

Results, moreover, should be measured not by the number of new laws passed, the size of a “stimulus” bill or the number of jobs added or “saved” during the president’s term. Results should be measured by the degree to which his actions, or his deliberate inaction, contribute to peace, prosperity and liberty.

Americans of all political persuasions want Mr. Obama to succeed. The tough times we face require it. But we also should expect more. We should expect Mr. Obama to stay true to the Constitution, protect the value of the dollar and see that our government lives within its means. Using the power of government to print and borrow hundreds of billions of dollars to lavish favors on selected companies, industries and special interests is not how you do this.

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and author of the recently published book, “Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity and Liberty.”



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