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100 Days In, A Presidency Still Undefined

Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' Political Director.

Barack Obama hits the 100-day mark as president on Wednesday amid breathless assessments and too-numerous-to-mention scorecards. The day may be a "Hallmark holiday," as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs describes the milestone, but it nonetheless offers members of the media their first real opportunity to take stock of a new administration.

Yet while an important opportunity to contextualize what the president has done so far has arrived, it is unquestionably way too premature to draw conclusions about the highs and lows of an Obama presidency.

A perfect historic example is what was written about a previous president's first 100 days:

"In public, the president has shown Washington a low-key style, a tone he thinks America wants in Washington. It has showed in his measured public assessments of congressional foes who have assailed his efforts. ... This administration has done a lot better than some past administrations simply because it has been so focused,'" Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess told the Austin American-Statesman.

"This has been an administration of astonishing professionalism, very remarkable," Princeton University presidential historian Fred I. Greenstein told the Los Angeles Times.

"He also made some very deft moves using his personal style and charm -- volunteering to go up and address retreats of House and Senate Democrats," American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein told the Detroit News.

These quotes could easily have been generated in the current recap of Mr. Obama's first 100 days.

However, they were originally printed in April 2001 about President George W. Bush's first 100 days.

Those positive assessments were far out of the minds of Americans 8 years later: President Bush left office in January with a 22 percent approval rating in the CBS News/New York Times poll.

No one knows what the next 1,361 days of Mr. Obama's first term will bring, just like no one on April 29, 2001 could have predicted 9/11 and its aftermath, the war in Iraq, the financial industry meltdown or Hurricane Katrina.

Ruth Marcus nailed it in Sunday's Washington Post: "The first 100 days of a presidency are like the opening chapter of an unfinished novel. It will be possible, by the end, to look back and see the foreshadowing of character traits and plot twists, but for now it's too early to predict what direction the story will take."

And while it might be tempting for some to look at President Obama's 68 percent approval rating in this week's CBS News/New York Times poll and marvel at his performance to date, it bears noting that these first 100 days represent a mere 7 percent of the duration of his first term.

"It's not like switching a light on and saying, 'OK it's all set,'" former NFL coach Bill Parcells said at the beginning of the 1989 season, after his New York Giants showed some progress following a playoff-less 1988. "This is a new group and we're in transition. ... I'm not ready to put them in [the Football Hall of Fame in] Canton yet."

So without putting him in the Hall of Fame, what can be safely said about Mr. Obama's first 100 days?

Well, there's no question that President Obama has forged ahead aggressively in the face of multiple crises. And there's no question that he's been extremely productive - more productive than any president since the "First 100 Days" was coined under FDR in 1933.

Domestically, Mr. Obama has signed a $787 billion stimulus bill, announced a $1.1 trillion financial and auto industry bailout packages, sacked the CEO of GM, unveiled a plan to help homeowners pay and refinance their mortgages, expanded health insurance coverage for children and legal protection for women seeking equal pay, loosened the ban on embryonic stem cell research, and is on the verge of seeing Congress move ahead with his $3.5 trillion budget plan.

In terms of national security, he ordered the shutdown of the Guantanamo Bay prison, set August 2010 as the date to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq, committed 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan and paved the way for negotiations with Russia to limit nuclear weapons.

As for foreign policy, he's reached out to Russia, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba, visited Canada, Europe, Mexico and Turkey and tried to sway U.S. allies into supporting a global economic stimulus plan and attempted to get NATO allies to help out in Afghanistan.

And he's also had to deal with his share of unpredicted crises: the Somali pirate saga, North Korea's missile launch and the current swine flu concerns.

He's also had his share of bumps and bruises: the withdrawals of the Tom Daschle and Judd Gregg cabinet nominations, the AIG bonus flap, Republican criticism of his economic stimulus proposal on the heels of his full-court press for GOP support of it, Democratic criticism of his Iraq withdrawal plan and bipartisan criticism of his budget proposal.

Ultimately, it's the results of many of these moves that will define this president.

Will his economic stimulus plan actually stimulate the economy? Will his emphasis on the war in Afghanistan shut down al Qaeda? Will the dump trucks of money being spent bailing out the financial and auto industries pay dividends? Will his efforts to reach out to estranged world leaders result in improved relations with those countries? Will he be able to overhaul the health care system and get a comprehensive climate change bill through Congress?

"I think the American people ... are more concerned with what we're going to do each and every day going forward to continue the progress that we started in the first part of this administration," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday.

And it's the result of what the Obama administration started in these first 100 days that'll add up to the president's final grade - one to be determined by the American people on Election Day 2012.

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