Premature Legacy

Evaluating Barack Obama on Day 100

As we’ve noted before, much Obama coverage is eager to write history in advance of the present either by speculating on what will happen, or by prematurely angling to grade and brand the presidency before any meaningful perspective can be achieved.

Today, Politico’s Jonathan Martin offered a look toward the future:

They might be less dizzying than the first 100, but President Barack Obama’s second 100 days in office could prove just as vital to his legacy.

There’s much to pick apart in that lede, especially if the swine flu epidemic ramps up, and if the economy continues to slump despite the stimulus funds, but for now let’s just focus on the last word. Legacy. Isn’t it a little early for that?

Rather than jumping the gun on how Obama’s legacy will shape up, consider this long-view approach from Brian Lehrer, who spoke about today’s milestone with Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter:

How do we judge the effectiveness of a president’s first one hundred days. One way to look at things is that only now are we realizing the full effect of Ronald Reagan’s changes to the economy, because when people do the analysis of the economic shock that we’re in a lot of people trace it all the way back to Ronald Reagan. And you could say, well, we certainly don’t know the effectiveness of President Obama’s first one hundred days here on the hundredth day. History is long. Things take a long time to really display their full effects and we could even go back and re-debate Reagan’s first one hundred days in a very new way given what’s happened in the country in the last six months.

And, that’s just it. A legacy is something that is debated in the future, when all the dust has settled. Angling to calculate the legacy today is like a cramming for a test the night before. Sure, you might get a good grade, but that stuff’s not gonna stay in your head. It’s a shallow way to assess Obama’s productivity, and it shortchanges readers who deserve substantive coverage about what’s happening now, not how we might look back on it in the future.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.