Much has been made of the completion of Barack Obama’s first one hundred days as the nation’s president. The identification of this period in a new presidency flows from the early months of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term, when the country was experiencing what became the Great Depression and the new president pushed a slew of new federal programs to combat the economic crisis.
While a snapshot at any point in an administration’s tenure is problematic, the landmark of the first hundred days provides as good a time as any to assess what its early efforts and accomplishments suggest about the intentions and directions likely to be revealed as the presidency matures.
The comparisons to FDR’s first term are most clearly apparent with respect to the economic meltdown that hit the nation (and shortly thereafter much of the rest of the world) in the midst of last fall’s presidential campaign. The similarities begin with the change in approach that both new presidents initiated to deal with the crises. Each followed a laissez-faire administration that many blamed for the economic collapses the new presidents inherited.
And just as Roosevelt sought to increase economic activity with major federal programs that created large budget deficits, so did Obama push Congress to adopt a “stimulus package” of almost one trillion dollars as his first major legislative achievement.
Properly understood, that measure reflects Mr. Obama’s basic approach to the economy, which, simply stated, is to respond aggressively to circumstances that threaten the nation’s underlying economic strength. Obama may be characterized as a socialist and a tax-and-spend liberal by his critics, but he is more properly identified as an activist: one who will not let market forces slowly work towards a recovery if he can speed that recovery along.
More fundamentally, the Obama administration can be expected to impose tight regulations on the banking industry and its compatriots in the real estate and equity markets. Left to their own devices, these institutions sought to push profits far beyond rational levels, with the meltdown almost an inevitable result. Unsecured securitizations and high-risk mortgages will soon be a thing of the past, if they aren’t already, under this administration.
Early on in his presidency (in both his inaugural address and his first speech to Congress), Obama identified three substantive areas that he asserts demand attention. And in the months since, he has continued to emphasize the goals of energy self-sufficiency, national health care, and an improved education system, from pre-school through college.
These priorities present major challenges for the new president for several reasons. First he must determine which specific options to pursue to achieve the general goals he seeks. And then he has to gain the support of the public and Congress, probably in that order, to get the options he chooses enacted into law. These will not be easy tasks, and many objective observers think he is tackling too much by trying to bring about fundamental change in three major areas of domestic policy.
Still, general support for some kind of health care reform is widespread, from labor organizations to corporate boardrooms. And the perceived urgency of achieving energy independence, while at the same time re-establishing a pre-eminent role in the world-wide efforts to combat global climate change, creates an atmosphere for fundamental change in the way the country uses and produces energy.
The country’s educational system also cries out for attention, and Mr. Obama is likely to seek increased funding for pre-school and some kind of federal program for post-secondary school education, while at the same time addressing deficiencies in the current “No Child Left Behind” initiative established by his predecessor.
He also has made clear his desire to address the knotty topic of immigration, albeit some of his advisers have privately suggested that any efforts in that area would likely take a back seat to the “big three.”
Meanwhile, in the foreign policy arena, the president has also charted a new approach, if not an entirely new course, from that of his predecessor, and it again suggests a change in philosophy that may lead to dramatic results.
In essence, the change is one of tone, but it reflects a turn from arrogance to humility, from hegemony to cooperation. Thus, where the Bush administration referred to an “axis of evil” and saw a threat to national interests in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, Obama shakes hands with Hugo Chavez and sends messages of good will to the Islamic world.
These are not mere “window dressing” moments. Mr. Obama clearly has a different world-view than his predecessor and a different understanding of how the United States relates to that world-view.
Still, he is anything but oblivious of the horror the nation suffered on 9/11, and his focus on the nation’s security is apparent in his controversial decisions to maintain some Bush administration interpretations of surveillance and pre-trial detention.
In this respect, he is trying to thread a needle. On the one hand, he hopes to reduce anti-American sentiment by showing a more conciliatory and open attitude towards potential belligerents. On the other, he is maintaining a military presence in the region, particularly focusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan, thereby creating the same potential for radical elements to foment hostile feelings towards the U.S.
In sum, viewing his approaches to the economic crisis he inherited, considering his identification of the domestic priorities he intends to tackle, contemplating the signals he is sending to the rest of the world in his emerging foreign policy, and analyzing the quality of his commitment to national security, the president is probably less an ideologue than his critics fear and his supporters hope.
Rather, what emerges is a president who is ambitious but pragmatic, who has firm beliefs but is not doctrinaire, who is less likely to take risks based on theoretical constructs and more likely to chart courses of action that meet current needs.
The Obama presidency is still in its infancy, with much undoubtedly yet to unfold. But from what we have seen so far, this president may best be characterized as one who will seek to “do what works.”