The Century Mark

Let's go substantive on 100-day coverage

President Barack Obama’s hundredth day in office is approaching, and, as Howard Kurtz wrote on Friday (a.k.a. Day 95), it’s time to “get ready for all kinds of ephemeral verdicts that will inevitably be washed away by the tide of history.”

The media have been ready for weeks. There have been slide shows (showcasing the skills of White House photographer Pete Souza), lists, glossy “special edition” magazines, and expert opinions galore. On Wednesday (The Big Day!), the merry media will cover Obama’s press conference. It is, quoting White House senior advisor David Axelrod, a “Hallmark holiday.” It’s Bo, with a semblance of seriousness. It’s campaign frenzy, grafted onto a new presidency.

There’s no real reason why one hundred days should be the marker for reflection on the presidency. Minus its place in historic tradition, the hundred-day marker, with its intrinsically celebratory or judgmental coverage, is completely arbitrary. (Joe Klein didn’t have to wait until now to write, cleverly but glibly, “Barack Obama doesn’t do much poetry anymore.”) And as Kurtz and others have pointed out, it’s far too soon to yell “Success!” or “Failure!” and any attempt to do so will appear premature.

But, for better or for worse, the “100 days” marker exists, and isn’t going to go away. (We can say that the media should stop caring about the first hundred days, but the media won’t stop caring about the first hundred days. It’s a theme that’s too big to fail.) So we might as well take stock of where we are. Tempered reflection—a good-faith assessment of what the administration and Congress have accomplished, of what has been put on the table (vs. what has been temporarily pushed off) and how those things are currently holding up under (admittedly short-view) scrutiny—is still a good thing. Coverage that’s smart, substantial and fair, reporting style and image only as they relate to substance, can still be valuable.

Now, it’s true that the Obama administration, recognizing a media circus when it sees one, has smoothly and coolly hijacked the 100-day train and decided to put its primary spokesman—Obama himself—front and center, knowing the crowds will come; that’s the smartly self-aware storyline that both The New York Times and Politico have emphasized. But an inordinate focus on the Obama folks’s PR skills (a given by now) leaves less room for substantive and rational assessments of the administration’s actions. Just because the White House chooses to engage in skilled image-making in the lead-up to Wednesday (an official photo release, the press conference, the casual remarks from staffers downplaying the significance of the event), doesn’t mean that reporters can’t still assess what has been accomplished.

After all, it’s important to note that while governance isn’t a race, the past hundred days have seen plenty of swift and decisive executive action. It’s not ridiculous to judge Obama on what he has done so far.

But in doing so, perhaps the press can take the hundred-day mark, swivel the spotlight, which seems trained on Obama-the-person-who-could-maybe-might-do-it-all, and turn it onto the issues themselves—the budget, the stimulus, the oversight, the transparency decisions, Ledbetter, where we are on health care and energy. It may be virtually impossible to avoid celebrating, judging, or shooting down the mesmerizing cult of personality that has driven so much Obama coverage—the can he do it all, can he be post-partisan, will he disappoint lines of thought—but this is one situation wherein sober, understated reporting on the facts more than the person, may yield the most helpful, and least bait-driven, results.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.