Wednesday, April 29, 2009
100 Days And Running
It's a mystery why we feel the need to examine and philosophize over a president's first 100 days in office. It made some sense during FDR and the Great Depression. But, in retrospect, FDR's full test had as much to do with his reaction to Pearl Harbor -- and subsequent leadership in World War II -- as it did with his radical domestic program in the Great Depression.
Similarly, while Ronald Reagan put the nation on a new course -- and gave it something of a new confidence after the months of Jimmy Carter malaise -- the Gipper is remembered for an economic program that wasn't passed until the summer of 1981, and a military buildup that sent the Soviet Union into bankruptcy years later.
In short, our greatest presidents are known because of what they do many days and months down the road after their 100th day in office. And, certainly, George W. Bush wouldn't face his most difficult moment until some nine months into his presidency.
All that said, assessments need to be made about this man called Barack Hussein Obama. In very brief, give the man an A for stagecraft and presence -- and a B for management and governance, leaving him with a B+ overall.
Obama was an historic figure from the moment he won on November 4, 2008 (arguably before that -- when it became clear that he would be a black candidate who had a truly legitimate shot at the White House). But 100 days into his term, it is quite clear that he has taken that sense of history and managed to leverage it into a political and cultural force that is -- in the real sense of the term -- awesome to behold.
For the first time in nearly 20 years Americans truly like their president. NBC's poll has his personal likability at 81 percent -- a ridiculous figure. Republicans, who have serious doubts about his policies, nonetheless truly admire the man. After 16 years in which roughly 50 percent of the nation didn't just dislike the man in the Oval Office, but actively despised him and conjured up the worst sort of conspiracy theories about their commander-in-chief, it's actually wonderful to have representing America someone that Americans of all backgrounds appear to admire.
Perhaps it's because Barack Obama seems to demand that he be taken seriously. Immediately after his election, there was much media speculation about whether comedians would be able to joke about this president. Part of it was a concern that the predominantly white comic "class" would be uncomfortable making jokes about a black man. But, the real difficulty about making jokes about Barack Obama is that he doesn't give either the media or the comedians easy material.
Both of his baby boomer predecessors invited self-deprecation -- almost to the point that one wondered about what sort of insecurity lay underneath. Even before the impeachment crisis, Bill Clinton reveled in the image of the "Bubba" -- the Southern good 'ol boy who liked the ladies and a good time. He invited the "Saturday Night Live" parodies. George W. Bush -- the son of a president and the grandson of a senator would go to his own alma mater and boast that being a C-student could get you to the White House. And he wondered why the media loved describing him as an ignorant fool?
Conversely, we know more about Barack Obama than almost any individual who became president. His autobiography put the father issues, the drug stuff, the exotic background, etc., all out there. For the first time in a long time, Americans seem to have a president who is comfortable in his own skin -- the fact that it is a bit darker than that of his 42 predecessors (yes, including Grover Cleveland who counts as being president twice) matters little to the man himself. Perhaps not since Reagan has there been a president who knows who he is -- and projects that sense of confidence and authority onto his country. And that's just the sort of person the country seems to need when it is going through its most difficult economic times since the Great Depression.
As noted here recently, why else would the country's "right track" numbers start moving into positive territory -- despite the fact that the recession persists and unemployment figures continue to rise? This country believes in this president, his wife and his family -- even if his policies are suspect. So, on that level alone -- being a leader whose own sense of self and optimism help inspire the same in his nation. For that Barack Obama deserves an A.
Still, being president isn't all just about stagecraft: It's also about actual governance and management. Here, the president slips somewhat. His early decisions concerning his Cabinet continue to bedevil him. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's tax woes brought an early cloud over the office of the man who would have the most significant role in Obama's domestic agenda. It took literally weeks for Geithner to get stabilized, even longer for his department to be fully staffed. Given that the depth of the economic crisis was known even before the election, this sort of chaos in the critical agency is rather inexcusable.
Similarly, because the president had so much personal investment in former Sen. Tom Daschle, Obama insisted on him as secretary of health and human services. Of course, Daschle became so compromised because of his post-Senate lobbying career that he was uncomfirmable. Because of that delay, Obama's back-up choice Kathleen Sebelius was only confirmed on Tuesday -- after the onset of a swine flu outbreak that could be horrific. Did the fact that the top spot in the health agency cause delays in reaction to the swine flu outbreak. Keep an eye on that when the second 100 days begins.
And it took Obama three tries at getting a Commerce Secretary. One of them, of course, was New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- who stepped down after being implicated in a federal probe which may also touch on a state pension scandal in New York, thus implicating Obama's auto task force overseer, Steve Rattner. For an administration that demands high levels of ethical scrutiny and probity, there are just a few clouds hovering overhead that might become storm clouds sometime down the road.
Yes, the president -- and his wife -- have wowed their overseas counterparts. Notably, however, he has gotten few commitments from them on either economic or military/strategic approaches. Again, stagecraft is easy; governance a little less so.
Still, domestically President Obama got his stimulus package passed in near-record time -- along with supplemental spending bill and billions more in various bailouts and rescue packages. This has been a rather profligate presidency -- which can be justified given the recession. But, that level of spending can't continue without foreign investors beginning to balk -- or inflation starting to kick in. These are not choices that a Republican president would have made and it is hardly surprising that the GOP doesn't give this president good marks because of that. But, the public voted for change -- and that direction seems to mean more public spending and bigger government. If that's the era in which we are about to embark, so be it. If it is indeed too much, the public will launch a correction beginning in 2010.
In the meantime, the president might want to watch for rhetorical bits of overkill: Any more "too cute by half" statements like calling for earmark reform after signing a bill with 9,000 earmarks or asking for $100 million in cuts after submitting a $3.6 trillion budget will underimine the one area where this president is both strongest and most vulnerable -- his likeability and credibility.
Those are two things that the 44th president has in abundance. Let's hope that they remain assets upon which he can depend as the nation inevitably faces more difficult moments come weeks and months after this 100-day mark.