- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Confronted with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and a nation tiring of an unpopular war, President Obama has set forth a fast-paced agenda aimed at changing policies, priorities and perceptions on several fronts in his first 100 days in office.

On the domestic front, Mr. Obama has commanded the Democratic majorities in Congress to pass a $787 billion stimulus plan to jolt the economy, while proposing record government spending in a budget that raises taxes on the rich to fund education, health care and environmental programs. He has exerted unprecedented authority in the marketplace, most notably in the auto industry, and has removed long-held federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research and on international nongovernmental organizations that perform abortions.

On the world front, the new president has vowed to close the U.S. military’s detention center for terrorism suspects at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and set a timeline for withdrawing combat troops from Iraq and ordered 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan for a war Mr. Obama said has been neglected. He has faced nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, eased restrictions on travel by Cuban-Americans to Cuba and even authorized a shoot-to-kill rescue mission for a U.S. tanker captain held by Somali pirates.

Mr. Obama also barnstormed across Europe seeking cooperation from nations that had turned their back on the United States during the final days of the Bush presidency and had blamed America for the global fiscal crisis, and he attended a summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders, where he was greeted warmly by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a longtime critic of U.S. policies in general and the Bush administration specifically.

Click here to download a PDF of Wednesday’s special section “Obama: The First 100 Days.”

Though polls show that most voters approve of how Mr. Obama has performed, his start in Washington has been messy in some cases, such as public spats with television pundits, conservative talk-show hosts and even former Vice President Dick Cheney; and he’s had an embarrassing series of Cabinet-vetting problems.

The Democratic president recently angered liberals by releasing memos showing that the Bush administration allowed what they regard as torture of detained terrorist suspects but then saying he wouldn’t pursue prosecution of Bush officials. After liberal groups started petition drives seeking a deeper investigation, Mr. Obama said his attorney general’s office would decide whether the authors of the interrogation policy would face any consequences, an about-face that enraged conservatives.

Mr. Obama called it “one of the tougher decisions I have had to make,” but not all of his supporters are satisfied.

“I am a bit peeved, to say the least, about his ‘looking forward and not back’ approach to what I believe were crimes perpetrated by the Bush administration,” said liberal activist Rick Hegdahl, an Iraq war veteran from the Seattle area. “No one out here in the world outside the D.C. bubble would ever have that kind of treatment accorded them for committing any crimes of that magnitude [or lesser]. I hope that more justice is forthcoming.”

Yet even administration critics say Mr. Obama has shown his inexperience relatively few times as he has bypassed the filter of Washington’s media and communicated with taxpayers in frank terms and by less traditional means. Telegenic at 47, Mr. Obama has infused the American people with his talking points. Promising “the road ahead will be long” on such a regular basis, he has remained widely popular.

Promises to keep

Polls show that Mr. Obama has delivered a confidence boost as Americans increasingly believe the nation is on the “right track” - receiving higher numbers than recent presidents.

White House aides trumpet Mr. Obama’s accomplishments - from tax cuts to transparency and the signing of a host of Democrat-written bills they say signal a new direction for the middle class.

Obama critics see it differently, saying he’s done too much apologizing for former President George W. Bush’s actions and is statistically rated the most partisan chief executive in modern time.

Mr. Obama has avoided major losses in his first 100 days - his legislation has been passed, he’s had nothing to veto and his party has remained unified.

But soon, he will have to deal with legislation such as the energy bill, over which the Democrats may be divided, and he will need Republican votes to send the measure to his desk.

“That’s going to get hard,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian and professor from Princeton University.

An early April report from Pew Research found Mr. Obama to be the most polarizing president in four decades - with the widest gap between members of his own party who view him favorably and members of the other party who strongly disapprove of his plans.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has a lot of promises to keep - having offered more campaign pledges than the previous two presidents.

Politifact.com, a service run by the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, has created an “Obameter” to track each promise Mr. Obama has made since he first became a candidate for president in February 2007. According to its calculations, he has kept 26 promises, compromised on seven and has broken six. The rest are either stalled (three), in the works (61) or haven’t been acted upon (411).

Among his broken promises was a pledge to post nonemergency legislation for public comment online five days before signing. He also has not ended the income tax for seniors earning less than $50,000, and he has not created a $3,000 tax credit for companies that hire new workers.

Many of his promises, such as “restoring our moral standing,” were conceptual rather than specific, and polls show he’s been able to achieve success even as many of the policies have yet to be solidified.

“Almost all of Obama’s accomplishments so far have been rhetorical, rather than policy-based,” Alex Conant, the former Republican National Committee spokesman who followed the Democrat’s every speech during the campaign, wrote recently on his blog.

“Inherited” economy

Since his inaugural address, Mr. Obama has said that many of the problems facing the nation were “inherited” from the Bush administration and a Washington political system more likely to bicker than solve challenges.

The president has reminded taxpayers frustrated with Wall Street bailouts and executive bonuses that his team didn’t craft the Troubled Assets Relief Program, saying he would have done it differently. He also was quick to say in the face of furor over American International Group’s bonus scandal that he, too, was angry. “We didn’t draft these contracts,” he said.

But as House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, said just before the inauguration, Mr. Obama’s party would soon own the bad economy.

“This is a learning curve for all of us, controlling both the Congress and the White House,” Mr. Clyburn said. “We will be held responsible for everything. We can only blame Bush for about two or three more weeks.”

Mr. Obama followed through quickly on what he said was priority No. 1 by signing, less than a month into his term, a $787 billion economic-stimulus bill that passed Congress with just three Republican votes.

It boosts unemployment benefits and cuts taxes for working families - an average of $65 per paycheck - and funnels money for construction and new roads to state and local governments. The package also offers tax benefits for buying a new car or home this year, increases college education credits and funds small-business loan programs.

The Obama administration estimates the stimulus plan will ultimately “save or create” more than 3 million jobs, but it acknowledges there will continue to be job losses all year.

Mr. Obama also signed an earmark-laden, $410 billion budget left over from the final year of the Bush administration to keep the government operating. At the time, he and his aides said the $7 billion in earmarks were a mere fraction compared with the size of the budget, an argument that rang hollow this month when the president trumpeted his order for Cabinet members to carve a total of $100 million from agency budgets.

“A $100 million there, a $100 million here, pretty soon, even in Washington, it adds up to real money,” Mr. Obama said.

Congress passed its own version of the $3.6 trillion budget Mr. Obama presented, but there are still intense negotiations ahead, and the president may not get some of the policy changes his blueprint calls for, namely on climate change and health care.

Mr. Obama also “inherited” an ailing auto industry, with the nation’s top car manufacturers getting $17 billion last year in a federal bailout. As the companies said they face more troubles, he gave Chrysler limited time to shape up or file for bankruptcy, and he forced out General Motors’ chief executive. The president also said the government will guarantee auto warranties.

David Walker, a former chief of the Government Accounting Office who now heads the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, said it’s good Mr. Obama promises to tackle the long-term fiscal problems of entitlement reform, but “he’s yet to lay out any proposals or even a process for how we are going to be able to address those issues once we turn the corner on the economy.”

He said Mr. Obama will need to start making “long overdue tough choices” on structural problems with Social Security and Medicare that will help the U.S. “avoid a much bigger problem down the road.”

Mr. Walker acknowledges Mr. Obama stepped into office facing difficult circumstances - an already $1.2 trillion deficit, rising unemployment and a recession.

“On one hand, he deserves a lot of credit for exerting leadership; but on the other hand, his budget proposal includes a number of expansions and additional spending that - while they might be consistent with campaign promises - need to reconsidered because of our debt,” Mr. Walker said.

Change to believe in

Donald A. Ritchie, associate historian with the Senate Historical Office, said Mr. Obama “measures well” against successful presidents and “better” than the unsuccessful ones, but he added it is hard to judge when the president’s party enjoys a congressional majority.

Many of the new initiatives signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, had been passed by Congress but vetoed by Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.

“There’s a bit of that in what’s going on now. These initial measures are things that didn’t happen in the past eight years,” Mr. Ritchie said.

Like President Bill Clinton did with the Family and Medical Leave Act when he took office, Mr. Obama has chosen to enact legislation that the previous president had vetoed: federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research and a major expansion of the health insurance program for poor children.

Mr. Obama also has championed a bill that makes it easier for workers to claim pay discrimination based on gender and has boosted the Serve America Act, expanding programs such as AmeriCorps while encouraging volunteerism.

Among the less-talked-about items on the first-100-days scorecard are measures Mr. Obama signed to require better fuel-efficiency standards, protections for wildlife and more open disclosure practices in government.

Mr. Zelizer dismissed those who have compared Mr. Obama’s policies to Roosevelt’s New Deal, saying that was a time in which the president and Congress were “literally building government.”

“It’s much smaller on scale and scope, even if now it looks big,” he said.

He said comparisons to President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” are more accurate, since Mr. Obama is moving government into areas where it hadn’t been before, particularly with “dramatic interventions” in the financial sector.

“For modern presidents, we haven’t seen anything like this in a long time,” Mr. Zelizer said.

Foreign affairs

Besides struggling with an ailing economy amid a global recession, Mr. Obama has had to focus on two wars, one that he considered as having been neglected and the other a prolonged conflict that he had opposed from the start.

He orchestrated a policy review with the help of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, and announced that he would withdraw all combat troops from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010. He also ordered a surge of 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, saying they have a limited mission, but he still drew protests from antiwar groups and pushback from some Democrats. The president also is sending resources to Pakistan.

Mr. Obama recorded a message of friendship for the Iranian New Year, telling Iranians he aims for a “future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce … where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbors and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace.” He was rebuffed by Iranian leadership, but has said he remains hopeful there can be progress.

He also visited a mosque in Turkey before a surprise visit to Iraq.

Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies said Mr. Obama has gone a long way in recovering “much of America’s lost prestige and popularity in a matter of months.”

Shrinath Sundaram, a former Californian working in India and closely following the president’s actions, agreed.

“With the incoming president having to clean the mess created over the past seven years, the task was not only onerous and demanding, but was spread across many fronts,” he said, rating the president with high marks for boosting diplomacy.

This month also marked Mr. Obama’s first national security test, as aides had to wake him in the pre-dawn hours to tell him North Korea had tested a nuclear weapon.

Mr. Obama called the launch “provocative,” and the incident helped boost his message of the day - calling for global cooperation to rid the world of nuclear weapons. He forged an agreement with Russia to restart arms control discussions.

A new challenge faced the president soon after, when Somali pirates took an American-flagged ship. Mr. Obama authorized a Navy SEALs mission to rescue the merchant ship’s captain.

In another shift from the Bush era, Mr. Obama modified the U.S. policy toward Cuba, stripping the strictest restrictions on family travel. The administration is considering its next move and whether to further ease the decades-old embargo against the communist-run island.

Mistakes

The mistakes Mr. Obama has made in several instances can be summed up as needing a do-over.

It started with his swearing-in, when Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. flubbed the oath of office. The following day, White House lawyers thought it made sense to have the president take the oath again during a private ceremony, just in case.

His choice of Gary Locke for commerce secretary was a case of third time’s the charm: The president lost his first two nominees - one to an ethics investigation and the other due to partisan differences.

Mr. Obama was lauded for a speedy transition - hiring early for key administration posts and quickly naming his Cabinet - but hit a big roadblock when several of his nominees faced tax issues and two withdrew from consideration.

The Treasury Department, which Mr. Obama says hasn’t faced such daunting challenges since the time of Alexander Hamilton, remains understaffed, and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has been off to a rough start with the AIG bonus scandal and some clumsy public appearances.

Another big problem for the Obama administration came as he proposed requiring veterans to use private insurance. He backed down within days as the idea was met with loud opposition.

Liberal-leaning David Sirota blogged at Open Left that many of Mr. Obama’s campaign promises seem empty.

He cited Mr. Obama’s dismissal of his changing stance on Cuba policy, referring to his original position as something he made “eons ago” when running for the U.S. Senate in 2004. Mr. Sirota said it’s “inappropriate” for any politician to express such sentiment, which he said is “cynical,” especially coming from the man with the hopeful rhetoric.

Mr. Sirota similarly complained that the administration has signaled it won’t be renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement as promised on the campaign trail.

“If politicians tell us they believe their campaign promises are a joke, then they make our whole political process a joke,” he wrote. “The fact is, you can’t sow hope and cynicism at the same time - those two don’t go together.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide