|Obama kisses his wife, first lady Michelle Obama (right), prior to delivering a public speech to thousands of people on the Hradcany Square in Prague, Czech Republic, on Sunday, April 5, 2009. (AP photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)|
|This photo provided by the White House shows President Barack Obama welcoming the Obama family’s new puppy, Bo, at the White House on March 15, 2009. Even as he has faced major domestic and international challenges in his first 100 days, Obama has maintained the composure, quiet authority and personality with which many Americans related during the campaign. (AP photo/Pete Souza, White House)
Ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first administration in 1933, the American media has been obsessed with measuring a president’s impact during his first 100 days in office.
The 100-day benchmark is actually fairly arbitrary, given unpredictable circumstances and the limited amount of time it gives a new president to truly affect either national policy or global priorities. Nonetheless, it does offer a thumbnail sketch of a president’s priorities, actions, missteps, and strategies for overcoming obstacles, as well as the administration’s general “modus operandi” for approaching responsibilities.
As one of the youngest commanders in chief in history, Obama faced many questions about his experience, maturity and ability to respond to the overwhelming problems facing the country. Not surprisingly, what we have seen in his first 100 days in office represents a continuation of what he revealed to us on the campaign trail — a calm and measured demeanor that is reassuring in challenging times, patience, an interest in hearing out many diverging viewpoints, and, when necessary, an ability to make tough, sometimes surprising decisions. His confidence, friendliness, energy and appealing family have all been well-received, both within the U.S. and abroad.
Unquestionably, Obama has inherited massive challenges on a number of domestic and international fronts. These crises, and their sheer magnitude, defined his first 100 days in office.
He inherited seemingly interminable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an economy in tatters, an international community that had lost faith in American leadership, a deeply dysfunctional health care system that had left millions of Americans uninsured, rising unemployment, a growing environmental crisis and unresolved legal questions about our tactics and strategies for pursuing the “war on terror.”
Yet, methodically and steadily, Obama has multi-tasked, sometimes in front of the cameras and sometimes behind the scenes, on a dizzying array of issues and challenges, never losing his cool or sense of quiet authority. Most urgently, of course, he has had to address the economic crisis that began on Wall Street, but quickly spread to every corner of the country. Obama has moved quickly to stabilize the banks and to push through a massive stimulus package designed to save and create jobs.
Obama’s decision to bail out major financial institutions was met with criticism from some economists, as well as Democrats and Republicans. We simply do not yet know whether his strategy will work or whether, ultimately, the government will have to take over and restructure failing banks. But his strategy has succeeded in stabilizing a global meltdown of financial institutions.
And despite almost universal Republican opposition, he achieved a major victory through the passage by Congress of the stimulus package, which is already invigorating local economies in cities and towns across the country. Stimulus funds are improving America’s infrastructure and providing support for education, health care, unemployment insurance and other benefits. Even as he sought unsuccessfully to gain bipartisan support for this measure, he is realistic and pragmatic enough to recognize that the bill needed to be passed under any circumstances.
In the international domain, Obama has moved forcefully to redirect military resources. He quickly announced plans to withdraw combat troops from Iraq by August 2010, fulfilling a campaign promise to responsibly bring that ill-conceived war to an end.
At the same time, he has increased the number of American soldiers in the Afghanistan region by 17,000. Again, this is consistent with his campaign statements that Afghanistan, and not Iraq, represents the main front on the war against al-Qaida. This turned out to be a prescient move, in that it helped quell additional disturbances that could have been anticipated in Afghanistan and has put the U.S. in a better strategic position in that country than it had been for some time.
In addition to the two wars Obama inherited, he also had to deal with a global crisis that was apparent from the hundreds of people who were being detained at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba without being charged with criminal offenses, afforded lawyers or given any of the protections provided by the Geneva Conventions or the U.S. Constitution. His decision to close Guantanamo within a year was a bold gesture that was wildly cheered amongst civil libertarians in the United States and abroad.
Conversely, the administration’s support of some of former President George W. Bush’s policies regarding executive privilege and state secrets has distressed many on the left. While it is still not clear what the Obama administration’s final position will be on these issues, Obama has shown that he will occasionally surprise both supporters and detractors, and that his position on any issue cannot be assumed or taken for granted. Despite the wishes of many of his supporters, he appears to be the pragmatic non-ideologue that he presented on the campaign trail.
Obama’s quiet leadership
In some cases, Obama’s most significant work has come through his influence on both Congress and the country’s direction.
There was bipartisan uproar when the media revealed that American International Group Inc. (AIG), one of the greatest economic failures in history, had paid out as much as $1.2 billion in bonuses, some $450 million of which was to be in the form of retention bonuses for executives in its failed financial division. Indeed, members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate have given public airing to the idea of a 90 percent tax on all bonuses, rendering them of little value to recipients.
While that idea had plenty of public and congressional support, Obama used his keen analysis as a constitutional scholar to realize that such a proposal would probably violate the constitutional doctrine of the bill of attainder. He quietly persuaded Congress to stop screaming about taxing the bonuses and consider other remedies. It is this sort of leadership that makes an enormous difference in a president’s effectiveness, which is not simply based on public speeches and declarations of success, but rather on having a steady hand at the helm.
At the same time, Obama has taken controversial positions. In supporting things that he believes are necessary to move the government forward, he may get engender opposition. His nomination of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state after she had been his chief rival for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination stunned some members of his own party.
Yet Obama was pushing an agenda that the legendary historian Doris Kearns Goodwin described, in reference to President Abraham Lincoln’s approach to governing, as building a “team of rivals.” His decision to bring in people who might be controversial or offer opposing viewpoints has made it possible for him to assemble a distinguished, experienced group of seasoned political leaders in his Cabinet.
Obama also made history in two important ways. First, he appointed Eric Holder as the first African American to serve as the nation’s attorney general. Holder is superbly qualified, having served as deputy attorney general under former President Bill Clinton, and as a highly regarded as a judge, U.S. attorney and government prosecutor.
The president also made history in a less-known area when he appointed the former Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan as the first female solicitor general, even though she had never argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, nor before any appellate court. During her nomination hearing, it became clear that many senators, including Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, were concerned that appointing the 48-year-old Kagan was an early indication that she would be a strong candidate for future Supreme Court vacancies. Notwithstanding the partisan opposition, Kagan was confirmed as solicitor general by a vote of 61 to 31.
Obama has taken on other tough issues in his first 100 days, as well. He signed legislation to remove certain restrictions on stem cell research that had been implemented by his predecessor. He also indicated that he would not follow Bush’s widely criticized practice of using signing statements to modify legislation passed by the House and Senate by writing in exceptions to those measures.
Former Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage reported on the Bush policy in his book “Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy.”
“After the Bush-Cheney administration took office, the use of signing statements would undergo exponential growth,” Savage wrote. “… Cheney made sure that all legislation would be routed through the Office of the Vice President for review before it reached the president’s desk.”
This use of executive authority was well documented by Savage, who ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for his work. All told, Bush used signing statements 161 times during his eight years, affecting some 1,100 provisions of law. In contrast, Obama has already indicated that he would not use signing statements that were contrary to the law. Time will tell whether Obama’s interpretation is dramatically different from Bush’s, or whether it represents a similar exercise in executive authority that will create enormous resistance from the legislative body.
The country’s standing within the international community is another area in which the president, and his wife, Michelle, have made enormous strides in their first 100 days. When they traveled together to Europe, the couple received almost universally warm welcomes. Many leaders believe that their appearances, both together and alone, have helped to heal rifts between the U.S. and some of its allies that formed during the previous eight years. While Obama was less successful in persuading his European partners at the G20 conference to support stimulus packages, they did report a new level of respect for the United States.
While Obama had little concrete success during his global travels, international leaders expressed enthusiasm for his willingness to listen. His quiet diplomacy was successful in solving disputes between other countries who were part of the G20. At the same time, he traveled to Turkey, a Muslim country, and expressed the willingness of the United States to extend its hand to Muslims and to make sure that they are treated as part of the world community. This highly risky strategy helped to elevate other world leaders’ estimation of Obama’s sense of leadership and judgment.
One of the most effective aspects of Obama’s European travels was the impact his wife had on the world. Michelle Obama was cheered at every stop, earning comparisons to the late Jackie Kennedy as a powerful first lady in the global community. The first lady has also provided a large boost to the attitudes and the self-respect of children of color, particularly in Washington, D.C. Her decision to plant a garden with the aid of elementary school students from the District has given them a chance to think about health and nutrition, and given her a platform to talk about the need for families to take care of their children.
Perhaps the most decisive and revealing step that Obama has taken in terms of United States security and the well-being of Americans was his quiet intervention to rescue the Americans who were captured by pirates off the coast of Somalia.
While this episode could well have embarrassed and hurt Obama early in his administration, it ultimately proved to be a public relations victory. He approved the military’s plans to rescue Capt. Richard Phillips, which it did without loss of life or injury to a single American. It is also important to note that, unlike his predecessor, Obama did not take credit for these actions or proclaim that a mission had been accomplished. Such quiet, yet decisive, action has become a trademark of the Obama administration, and has made him a much-admired president in his first 100 days.
There is, to be sure, still much work for Obama to do. Many of those constituent groups who worked so hard for his election in 2008 will be looking for the fruits of their labor. As historically black colleges and universities continue to suffer financial hardship, they will look to the president for support. In particular, they hope to see him fill some key Cabinet and deputy positions with their graduates.
Others will be paying close attention to Obama’s ability to address the major challenges that the administration faces on civil rights and civil liberties cases pending before the Supreme Court. His ability to pass legislation enacting a major overhaul of the nation’s health care system will be another test of his young presidency.
It is a difficult time to forecast what successes Obama will enjoy in addressing these national issues, but people will be looking beyond these first 100 days for some sign of his commitment to issues that have been ignored or dismissed by recent presidents. If Obama’s first 100 days are any indication, there is much reason to be optimistic about his ability to transform America in many profound and positive ways.
Charles J. Ogletree Jr. is the executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. His most recently book is “When Law Fails: Making Sense of Miscarriages of Justice,” published in January by New York University Press.
Click through for a timeline of some the the highlights from the first 100 days of the administration of President Barack Obama. More »
In a dizzying dash to the 100-day mark, President Barack Obama made a down payment on the changes he’d promised and delivered a trillion-dollar wallop to wake up the moribund economy. He put the country on track to end one war, reorient another and redefine what it means to be a superpower. All this with a cool confidence that has made increasing numbers of Americans hopeful that the country may at last be heading in the right direction. More »
Barack Hussein Obama took the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States before a sea of cheering people gathered to witness the beginning of his tenure and a profound moment in racial history. More »
Here’s all Barack Obama has to do to meet the world’s expectations if he’s elected U.S. president: End an unpopular war in Iraq, heal misery in nations hit by the global
food crisis and stop global warming, in addition to building bridges to
Muslim countries and reversing the unilateralist approach of the Bush
administration. More »
Here’s all Barack Obama has to do to meet the world’s expectations if he’s elected U.S. president: End an unpopular war in Iraq, heal misery in nations hit by the global food crisis and stop global warming, in addition to building bridges to Muslim countries and reversing the unilateralist approach of the Bush administration. More »