100 days of Obama: Energy aplenty, no miracles
WASHINGTON — Barack Obama opened his presidency by drawing an unflinching portrait of the challenges. Then he set about turning those perils into possibilities.
In a dizzying dash to the 100-day mark, 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.
The public couldn’t get enough of it, fixating on Team Obama’s every move — the arrival of family dog Bo; the president showing up for work in his shirtsleeves; the first lady’s moxie in baring her arms; Sasha and Malia’s swing set; even a visit to the White House by the surviving members of the Grateful Dead. Obama says he has jumped into a “weird fishbowl.”
Not everyone’s impressed. For all that went right with the president’s liftoff (after that small matter of the flubbed oath of office), Obama’s opening moves have fallen short in the eyes of many, and have left others wondering where it all will lead.
Republicans largely stiffed the president on his call for bipartisanship and cast him as a weak leader on the world stage. Liberals groused that he could have done more and wondered whether he’s too prone to compromise. Deficit hawks worried that he’s blown a gaping a hole in the budget.
Obama himself seems energized.
“The decision-making part of it,” he says, “actually comes pretty naturally.”
As for the critics, Obama says, Washington is “a little bit like ‘American Idol’ — but everybody is Simon Cowell.”
Almost overlooked in all the hoopla is the historic nature of Obama’s tenure as the first black president. There’s been little time to even think about that issue, which commanded so much attention during the campaign, as Obama has grappled with a seizing economy and has rushed pell-mell to reverse the legacy of eight years of Republican rule.
“You’d be hard [pressed] to find another president facing those kinds of challenges who has acted as intelligently and aggressively to meet the challenges head on,” said presidential historian Andrew Polsky, a professor at Hunter College in New York. “He hasn’t pushed things to the back burner. Of course, whether any of this works is another question, and it’s too soon to know that.”
Others are less hesitant to draw conclusions.
Ted Sorensen, a former speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy, says Obama “seems likely to be one of the great presidents in our history.”
Former House Republican leader Newt Gingrich says Obama’s foreign policy moves have been looking “a lot like Jimmy Carter,” a one-term president regarded as a weak leader.
Whatever the record so far, it’s clear that Obama’s biggest challenges are still to come. The pledge to overhaul health care will make his successful expansion of children’s health coverage look like child’s play.
While there have been hints that the recession may be easing, Obama still needs to stabilize the shaky banking system and get credit flowing again. The clock is ticking on his promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center within a year, and each detainee poses his own set of problems. Obama’s ability to wind down U.S. operations in Iraq and reshape efforts in Afghanistan hinges in large part on factors beyond his control.
Obama had hoped that his early actions to ban torture and release top-secret details of past interrogation practices would end a “dark and painful chapter in our history.” Instead, they have only inflamed passions and sparked new calls for more investigation and prosecution that are likely to be more than a passing distraction.
Change has arrived at a head-snapping rate, a product both of the troubled times and the president’s ambitious agenda.
There’s been the monstrous economic stimulus package that funneled billions into Obama priorities such as health care and renewable energy; a new law to provide 4 million more children with health insurance; another making it easier for workers to sue over discrimination on the job; the easing of Bush-era restraints on stem-cell research; jaw-dropping revelations about past interrogations; plans to put 21,000 more troops in Afghanistan; and the White House-orchestrated ouster of General Motors Corp.’s top executive.
In smaller ways, too, evidence of change is everywhere.
Obama was the first president to host a White House Seder to mark Passover. His administration set aside tickets to the annual Easter Egg Roll for gay and lesbian parents. He was the first sitting president to do “The Tonight Show” on NBC. His weekly radio address airs on YouTube.
There have been blunders along the way. It took three nominations for Obama to get his commerce secretary right, and two to find a health secretary. Obama apologized after making an off-key joke suggesting that his lame bowling skills made him Special Olympics material.
Through it all, the economy has been job one.
For a while, the news was only grim and grimmer.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 7,949 on Inauguration Day. By early March, it had dropped closer to 6,500.
Job losses piled up in staggering increments: 598,000 in January, 651,000 in February, 663,000 in March.
Obama went pedal-to-the-metal to throw money at the problem, first with billions of bailout dollars, next with billions of stimulus dollars, then with a proposed budget expected to produce $9.3 trillion in deficits over the next decade.
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio calls it “a spending spree the likes of which our nation has never seen,” and polls are picking up growing concern on that front.
About half of all Americans say they’re “very worried” that the rising national debt will hurt their children and grandchildren, according to an AP-GfK poll.
Taxpayers seethed when word surfaced that insurer American International Group Inc., the recipient of billions in bailout money, had paid millions of dollars in bonuses to employees, and it was all Obama could do to keep out in front of the anger and not get flattened by it.
By mid-April, tensions had eased, and the president was pointing to economic “glimmers of hope.” The Dow was back in the same range as it was around Inauguration Day.
For all his focus on the economy, Obama also devoted considerable effort to repairing the nation’s tarnished image abroad.
He sat down for his first formal TV interview with an Arabic-language station, telling Muslims that “Americans are not your enemy.” In Europe, he said that America in the past had “shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.” He carried the same message to Latin America, entertaining overtures from isolated Cuban President Raúl Castro and Venezuela’s anti-American president, Hugo Chávez.
Breaking with the unyielding tone of the Bush years, Obama said he was rejecting the notion “that if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness.”
Republicans said that was naïve, calling the president “a timid advocate of freedom at best,” in the words of former Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
White House life
The 44th president starts his day with a workout in the White House gym, usually with his wife, Michelle. Then it’s breakfast and the morning papers — he likes the feel of newsprint in his hands. When Obama gets to the Oval Office, he finds a stack of 10 letters on his desk, culled from the 40,000 to 50,000 that arrive daily.
The letters are “one of the really important rituals of his day,” says senior adviser David Axelrod.
Also each morning, Obama gets a briefing on national security, and a second on the economy.
“Between 7 and 10, I sort of know what I’m doing,” the president says. “After that, who knows?”
For all of the problems that Obama knew awaited him, new ones arrived out of left field.
“I’m pretty sure that he hadn’t boned up on piracy any time recently before he came here,” says Axelrod, who credits his boss with moving smoothly from one challenge to the next — “usually a few furlongs ahead of the others in the room.”
The trappings of the office, though, still take some getting used to. Like that button next to him that can be used to summon people.
“It took him awhile to recognize what that was,” says Axelrod.
Obama says one of the hardest adjustments has been dealing with the isolation that comes with the presidency.
He chafes a little “being inside this bubble,” Obama said in one early interview. To fight that, the president negotiated with his security people to keep using his BlackBerry, although his contacts list got chopped down to about 30 close friends and advisers.
Known for his even temper, Obama keeps things loose even in meetings on tense subjects, aides say.
What annoys him?
Axelrod mentions “the scorecard politics of Washington” and takes note of a proliferation of “bloviators” on television.
“He doesn’t have one of these in his office,” Axelrod says, gesturing toward a TV.
Still hard to read
Axelrod says Obama has settled into the presidency more easily than he did his candidacy.
The president seems unafraid to admit he’s wrong. Or right.
“I screwed up,” Obama said after his nomination of former Sen. Tom Daschle for health secretary failed.
“On this one, I think I’m right,” he said to critics of his friendly exchange with Chávez.
The president, whose aides dismiss the whole notion of the 100-day yardstick as the equivalent of a “Hallmark holiday,” came to office imbued with sky-high expectations from the public and emerged three months later with his approval ratings intact, at a solid 64 percent in the AP-GfK poll. But it’s all been too much for many Republicans — seven out of 10 now disapprove of his job performance, compared with 58 percent in February.
And there are still a lot of pages to be written.
Though Obama is on TV almost every day, Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at the City University of New York who is writing a book about the president, says he’s still hard to read.
Sometimes, he says, “it’s hard to get a handle on whether Obama’s being prudent or radical.”
Or, in the view of some liberals, too cautious.
Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group, said members are thrilled to have a president who’s making health care and clean energy priorities.
“But on the financial front, the jury’s still out and folks are looking to see whether the president is really prioritizing Main Street over Wall Street,” Ruben says.
Axelrod shrugs off the critics from both ends, saying: “He doesn’t work off anybody’s checklist.”
Sorensen, the former Kennedy speechwriter, said some of the Americans who invested such high hopes in “an unknown black man elected president in an overwhelmingly white country” now expect too much too soon.
“He’s a very good leader with all the instinctive skills of leadership, including superb judgment,” says Sorensen, “but that doesn’t make him a miracle worker.”
“There are no miracle workers.”
Having inherited two wars and an economy in crisis, Obama talks often about the high stakes for the nation in getting things right.
Only rarely does he allude to the stakes for him personally.
“I will be held accountable,” he said a few weeks into his presidency. “You know, I’ve got four years. … If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.”