May 02, 2009

Obama After 100 Days

After the American Century

The idea that one should evaluate a president after the first hundred days in office is not particularly old. It began with the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, in 1933, when the United States had been in an economic depression for almost four years. The Democrats had won a landslide victory, with majorities so large in both House and Senate that the Republicans were unable to be an effective opposition. In this situation, Roosevelt was able to push through a wide array of legislation in his first 100 days. This precedent is virtually impossible for any subsequent president to live up to, because no otter president since that time has both entered office when the nation was gripped by such a severe sense of crisis and also had the large majorities in the legislative branch that FDR had.

No one until now, one might say, but that would be inaccurate. Imagine that the meltdown in the Bush economy had begun in 2005 instead of 2008, and further imagine that the Republicans had been unable to do anything to overcome the Depression in those three years. Then the situation would be more similar. Even more to the point, President Obama has not had the 60 senators he needs to push through any legislation he desires, at least not yet. However, with the seating of Minnesota's Senator Franken imminent and with the defection of Senator Specter from Pennsylvania, it appears that during Obama's second hundred days he may have the unassailable majority that FDR had in 1933. In the second hundred days, not the first, major legislation, for example on health care, will first be possible.

As for the first 100 days, a great deal has been accomplished. President Obama has dramatically improved relations with Latin America by showing more openness to Cuba and by promising to close the Guantanamo prison. Recall that a bipartisan group of former Secretaries of State called for that closure last year. This is good policy, and puts the United States back where in should be, as an opponent of torture and a champion of legal due process and human rights. These actions and his successful trip to Europe have cemented in world opinion the understanding that the United States has taken a fundamentally new direction.

Domestically, the Obama Administration has shown that it can address many crises at once, as it has coped with the meltdown of the banks, the private mortgage crisis, the collapse of General Motors and Chrysler, and now the flu epidemic, while still pursuing its primary goals, notably that of achieving energy independence. In dealing with these and many other problems, President Obama has evinced excellent qualities in a leader. (1) The ability to reach decisions quickly. (2) The ability to explain his policies in clear language to the public. (3) The grace to admit when he has made a mistake and move to rectify it quickly. (4) Calmness in the face of multiple adversities. (5) An emphasis on dialogue. The character he has shown bodes well for his ability to guide the US through what still looks to be a difficult future.