Clock Ticking On Obama's First 100 Days

Barack Obama's first presidential signature declared a "National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation." He also used that signature to officially nominate his Cabinet choices. And, he put all new federal regulations on hold. Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, talks with Renee Montagne about what Obama will do on his first full day in office.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Barack Obama's first day as president was not all parades and balls. His first presidential signature declared a national day of renewal and reconciliation. He used that signature again to officially nominate his Cabinet choices. He put all new federal regulations on hold, and that includes some rules from the last days of the Bush administration that were controversial. Then late last night the new administration filed a motion to suspend war crimes trials at Guantanamo Bay for at least 120 days. And there's already been some action on that first day request. A military judge agreed today to suspend one of those trials. Now this morning we're going to hear an expert on presidential first days who was in the crowd for the inauguration. He spoke with our own Renee Montagne.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Yes, I'm here just off the National Mall with Stephen Hess. He's an expert on presidential transitions at the Brookings Institution. He served in two administrations, the end of the Eisenhower and the beginning of the Nixon. And good to be with you.

Mr. STEPHEN HESS (Senior Fellow Emeritus, Governance Studies, Brookings Institution): Yes, and beginnings are more fun than endings, let me assure you of that.

MONTAGNE: Well, that's a good start to this conversation. How do you see the first day of President Obama's administration fitting into the larger picture of first days?

Mr. HESS: Oh, I think it's going to be very different. First days are really, well, like a first day at school. There really isn't much work done. These people, I think, are ready to hit the ground running. We always say they should hit the ground running, they always hit the ground stumbling. We do know - they have given us some clues of what they're going to do. He's certainly going to bring in the generals.

To me that's very significant because I remember the first moment that I said, yes, this man is thinking like a president was one of those early debates on the issue of Iraq, and his position being different than the others was significant. And there was always a snidely(ph) how you're going to do it? And he said, the first day I'm going to bring in the Joint Chiefs. We're going to sit down, and I'm going to tell them what I want. And I said at that moment, he's thinking like a president.

MONTAGNE: What about historically a president who would have come into office in similar times? And I'm thinking here of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933.

Mr. HESS: OK. One thing that'll be different there, right from the start, of course, was he inaugurated on March 4th. He had a lot longer time to prepare for this.

MONTAGNE: But on that first day, did Roosevelt have much to do?

Mr. HESS: Look, Roosevelt had 100 days. That's what we measure things by today. And he had everything ready to go, and Congress was perfectly happy to pass it before they had even read it. Now, unfortunately, we're stuck with that tradition of 100 days, so that on the 99th day you will be calling me and saying how well did this guy do? That's totally unfair. And I think that Barack Obama has done very well in trying to change the expectations of that.

MONTAGNE: So, does the first day set the tone for a new administration?

Mr. HESS: It can, but I don't think it necessarily does. It hasn't in the past. I mean, you think of previous administrations where often the tone is set by something unexpected that happens in that first day, whether it's 9/11 or whether it's Reagan had an assassination attempt or whatever it may be.

MONTAGNE: And you mean not the literal first day, but in those first days.

Mr. HESS: Well, the first days. What it is about the first days that are so important is that everybody is feeling good about the president. His ratings are maybe as high as it's ever going to be. Take advantage of it. But it doesn't mean that if you don't, you're never going to have a comeback. Bill Clinton had a miserable transition and it reflected in a very bad first days. He started with gays in the military. He didn't realize how emotional that was.

MONTAGNE: Don't ask, don't tell.

Mr. HESS: Yeah. He had problems with choosing an attorney general, so he didn't have his Cabinet in place until March. Things did not go well, but actually he was re-elected president of the United States, so he must have done something right. So why waste those first days? But don't think that they're the be all and the end all.

MONTAGNE: Will this first day be remembered on the last day of the Barack Obama administration?

Mr. HESS: Well, for one thing, there won't be many people left anymore from the first day. When I was with Eisenhower, people stayed six years, even eight years. Now they don't, either because they burn themselves out - it's so much more work at the top than it used to be - or they get offers they can't refuse, because Washington is full of advocacy and law firms and other things that they're attracted to. But they're probably not around. So they may remember this first day, but they'll remember it from some place on K Street.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. HESS: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Stephen Hess is a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution and author of "What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-Elect." $00.00

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