Flashback: Media Lovefest over Barack Obama’s First 100 Days

Obama Takes Questions Student Journos SPresident Barack Obama surprised college student journalists who were brought to the White House for a briefing with press secretary Josh Earnest.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

The media’s framing for former President Barack Obama’s first 100 days began with the premise that his very presence in the White House was “historic.” Obama was praised for aggressively pursuing a bold policy agenda and reversing the policies of his predecessor.

The same media would later indulge Obama’s incessant complaints that all of his problems were caused by George W. Bush, which is difficult to square with their nearly universal praise for his total reversal of Bush policies 100 days into his administration.

Time magazine, for example, dubbed the Obama administration a “historic presidency” at the top of its Hundred Days special coverage, then brought in Joe Klein to declare Obama’s start “the most impressive of any president since F.D.R.”

Mark Halperin gushed that Obama was “instantly comfortable and highly skilled at the hardest job in the world,” swooning over the new president’s “even temper, cool demeanor, boldness under pressure, shrewd facility for managing personnel, unfailing instincts about when to delegate and when to engage.”

Halperin faulted Obama only for a “handful of public missteps” and, most amusingly, for his “failure to ameliorate the partisan divide.”

Comparisons to FDR were ubiquitous in Obama’s Hundred Days coverage; it would probably be easier to list the mainstream media articles that didn’t favorably compare Obama to Roosevelt. Savannah Guthrie at NBC News inadvertently let slip the reason why: White House officials were making the comparison themselves, every chance they got. The media simply followed their lead.

NBC’s summary illustrated how much of the media uncritically accepted what the Obama White House said about its first few months in office. Guthrie’s piece literally repeats the talking points Team Obama gave her, treating them as objective truth. (“Advisers are only too happy to tick off a flurry of accomplishments on the economy in the administration’s first hundred days.”)

She even repeated transparently ridiculous fluff like Obama’s aides claiming his “even temperament” only “darkened” when he had to deal with “military families who’ve lost loved ones” and read “personal letters from Americans telling stories of their own economic turmoil.”

The Washington Post said Obama had “moved quickly to strengthen the U.S. economy, refine the American strategy in two foreign wars and reverse Bush-era detention and interrogation policies that have drawn condemnation at home and abroad.”

In the Post’s view, Obama’s biggest failure at the 100-day mark was overestimating the willingness of Republicans in Congress to “rally behind the nation’s first African-American president at a time of crisis.” In other words, they thought Obama naive for believing evil Republicans could overcome their racism to vote for his magnificent stimulus bill.

Jack Cafferty at CNN asked its audience to name their favorite Obama success in the first 100 days, blithely assuming no reasonable person would think the nascent presidency a failure. One of Cafferty’s favorite successes was “meeting with leaders around the world, promising a new era of American leadership and cooperation.”

ABC News saluted Obama for moving “swiftly” and “rapidly” to “revoke and alter policies that marked the legacy of the Bush team.” (Why, just 100 days into the Obama presidency, Guantanamo Bay was as good as closed!)

The only criticism of Obama ABC could think to mention was that “critics say he could be putting too much on his already-full plate.” Those old enough to remember 2009 may recall critics saying many other things about Barack Obama, but for the mainstream media, the only flaw of this history-sculpting titan was that he cared too damn much.

The memory bank over at NewsBusters coughed up a clump of TV “journalists” worshiping at the Obama altar 100 days in, with comparisons to George Washington and the Kennedys. Michelle Obama was embraced as a “rock star.” Katie Couric asked John Boehner if his Republican caucus was “digging themselves into a hole” by not surrendering all objections to Obama’s magical agenda.

It is hard to top New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny’s legendary puffball question at President Obama’s 100 Days press conference: “During these first 100 days, what has surprised you the most about this office, enchanted you the most about serving in this office, humbled you the most and troubled you the most?”

Even as the Obama Hundred Days were unfolding, the Pew Research Center noted that President Obama “enjoyed substantially more positive media coverage than either Bill Clinton or George Bush during their first months in the White House.”

Pew found positive stories about Obama outweighed the negatives by two-to-one, not just on the op-ed pages, but in “straight” news stories. One of the reasons proposed for this disparity was Obama’s habit of “getting out of Washington and meeting directly with the public,” giving the media a steady stream of soft-focus human-interest stories to write about.

Also, Pew noted the coverage was heavily focused on Obama’s “personal and leadership qualities” than on his actual policy agenda. Not coincidentally, lifestyle and entertainment media continued treating the Obama family as celebrity superstars throughout the Hundred Days. “It feels as if sometimes the editors love them more than the readers,” one celebrity magazine editor remarked to the Today show.

When the media did talk policy during the Obama Hundred Days, it gave him nearly unlimited credit for dealing with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Coverage of Obama’s trillion-dollar stimulus bill almost invariably portrayed it as the new president’s effort to “fix” the nation’s broken economy, opposed only by mindless obstructionists (and, as noted, racists).

The media stressed Obama’s popularity in polls, conjured an aura of profound legitimacy around his margin of victory in the 2008 election, and placed great emphasis on polls that showed public optimism about America’s moving onto the “right track” because of his election. (They seem a great deal less interested in polls that show the public brimming with confidence about the economy now that Obama is gone.)

The media themselves were suffused with optimism and appreciation for Obama’s good intentions at the Hundred Day mark. For example, check out this assessment of Obama’s first budget proposal from April 29, 2009, at CNBC: “While a welcome victory, congressional passage of the budget would be only a first, relatively easy step toward Obama’s goal of providing health care coverage for all Americans.”

Notice how getting that budget passed was not qualified as a welcome victory for Obama or for Democrats, and his healthcare ambitions were presented as pure unalloyed goodness. The mainstream media rarely discusses the “goals” of Republican presidents, especially the current one. 

Obama’s political credit card had no limit for advances on his good intentions. There was a little grumbling about how he did not manage a few administrative details perfectly, but the media had no doubt whatsoever that Obama meant well or that he had brilliant strategies for achieving his noble ends. Conversely, Republicans were asked to explain how they could oppose the new president in good conscience. The narrative of a historic president with a nearly unprecedented electoral and moral mandate was set long before Day 100 ticked by.