Sizing Up Obama’s First 100 Days

Sizing Up Obamas First 100 Days

The President almost seemed apologetic. “This may be a slightly longer speech than I usually give,” he told his audience at Georgetown University on April 14. “This is going to be prose and not poetry.” What followed, as promised, was not poetry. Barack Obama doesn’t do much poetry anymore. But in prose that was spare and clear and compelling, the President proceeded to describe how his Administration had responded to the financial crisis, the overriding challenge of his first 100 days in office. He had covered this ground before, nearly as well, in his budget message to Congress. But now Obama went further, using a parable from the Sermon on the Mount — the need for a house built on rock rather than on sand — to describe a future that was nothing less than an overhaul of the nature of American capitalism. “It is simply not sustainable,” he said, “to have an economy where, in one year, 40% of our corporate profits came from a financial sector that was based on inflated home prices, maxed-out credit cards, overleveraged banks and overvalued assets.”

That was the house built on sand. His house built on rock had five pillars — new rules for Wall Street, new initiatives in education, alternative energy and health care, and eventually budget savings that would bring down the national debt — which did sound a bit prosaic. Democratic politicians have been promising one or another, if not all, of the above since Franklin Roosevelt reinvented American government in the 1930s. But Obama was making his case in the midst of a national crisis, at a moment when it seemed possible that he might enact much of what he was seeking. And he was talking about far more than a new set of policies: he was implying a new set of national values. “There’s also an impatience that characterizes [Washington],” he said, “that insists on instant gratification in the form of immediate results or higher poll numbers. When a crisis hits, there is all too often a lurch from shock to trance, with everyone responding to the tempest of the moment until the furor has died down … instead of confronting major challenges that will shape our future in a sustained and focused way.”

The combination of candor and vision and the patient explanation of complex issues was Obama at his best — and more than any other moment of his first 100 days in office, it summed up the purpose of his presidency: a radical change of course not just from his predecessor, not just from the 30-year Reagan era but also from the quick-fix, sugar-rush, attention-deficit society of the postmodern age. The speech received ho-hum coverage on the evening news and in print — because, I suspect, it was more of a summation than the announcement of new initiatives. Quickly, public attention turned to new “tempests of the moment” — an obscene amount of attention was paid to the new Obama family dog and then, more appropriately, to the Bush Administration’s torture policy and the probably futile attempt to prosecute those who authorized the practices. And then to a handshake and a smile that the President bestowed on the Venezuelan demagogue Hugo Chávez. These are the soap bubbles of our public life. They have become the hasty, capricious, bite-size way that we experience the world. It has made for slovenly, sandy citizenship.

The most important thing we now know about Barack Obama, after nearly 100 days in office, is that he means to confront that way of life directly and profoundly, to exchange sand for rock if he can. Whether you agree with him or not — whether you think he is too ambitious or just plain wrong — his is as serious and challenging a presidency as we have had in quite some time.

The idea that a President can be assessed in a mere 100 days is a journalistic conceit. Most presidencies evolve too slowly to be judged so quickly. Roosevelt set the initial standard in 1933, overpowering Congress and passing a slew of legislation to confront the Great Depression during his first three months in office. “Lyndon Johnson had two 100-days periods,” says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, “one after the Kennedy assassination and another after he was elected in 1964.” Indeed, Johnson’s legislative haul dwarfs anything before or since; he quickly got Congress on track to pass landmark civil rights bills and create Medicare, among other things. “And you have to say that Reagan had a significant 100 days,” Goodwin adds, “because he represented a clear break from the policies of the past, even if his signature legislation — the tax cuts — didn’t pass until after the 100 days were over. But I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like Obama since Roosevelt.”

The legislative achievements have been stupendous — the $789 billion stimulus bill, the budget plan that is still being hammered out . There has also been a cascade of new policies to address the financial crisis — massive interventions in the housing and credit markets, a market-based plan to buy the toxic assets that many banks have on their books, a plan to bail out the auto industry and a strict new regulatory regime proposed for Wall Street. Obama has also completely overhauled foreign policy, from Cuba to Afghanistan. “In a way, Obama’s 100 days is even more dramatic than Roosevelt’s,” says Elaine Kamarck of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Roosevelt only had to deal with a domestic crisis. Obama has had to overhaul foreign policy as well, including two wars. And that’s really the secret of why this has seemed so spectacular.

To be sure, the historic unpopularity of the Bush Administration has been a convenient foil for Obama. He has also been lucky in his enemies, a reeling Republican Party that lurches from gimmicks to hissy fits, including frequent, unbidden appearances by such unpopular characters as Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich, whose rants about everything from Obama’s decision to repudiate the torture of enemy combatants to his handshake with Chávez seem both ungracious and unhinged. “We obviously haven’t found our voice yet,” says Senator Lamar Alexander, one of the more thoughtful GOP leaders. “The American people sent us to the woodshed. And when you go to the woodshed, the best course of action is to sit there, be quiet, figure out why you’re there and what you can do about it.”
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