Obama's Second 100 Days
Obama was entitled to bask this week in his high poll numbers, the defection of a numerically crucial Republican senator, some hints that the economy may be getting ready to rebound and, most important, the avoidance of any irreversible mistakes. But at best, the new president has laid a foundation he can build on as he confronts the really hard challenge of developing effective policies and implementing them. Consider, for example, that while about 63% of Americans approve of Obama, about one in three of those don't like his policies. Their support is still attainable -- they'll obviously listen to his arguments and may eventually give him the benefit of the doubt, but he has yet to close the deal. And that's the hardest part.
Nobody knows that better than Obama and his team, and they've already mapped out an agenda and timeframe for what they want to accomplish between now and Labor Day. It includes making significant progress on legislation to overhaul the health care system, including near universal coverage and on a bill to curb greenhouse gas emissions (Turning either bill into law will take much longer). The agenda also includes a major new education initiative to be launched over the summer, coupled with a workforce training effort, and a big drive to get Arab-Israeli peace talks on track.
In the meantime, Obama and his aides will struggle to put the ailing economy on a firm road to recovery, which they hope will begin in the third quarter. That means further efforts to shore up banks and to restructure the auto industry, and it means pushing harder to get the stimulus money into the marketplace. He'll also have to deal with the swine flu epidemic and whatever else pops up to threaten the nation.
Obama also has to get a better handle on the wars in Iraq, and Afghanistan and the rapidly deteriorating situation in Pakistan, where the government is struggling against the Taliban with limited success. He's declared a change in policy, scheduling a withdrawal from Iraq and reinforcements for Afghanistan, but with violence escalating in both countries, figuring out how to carry out those policies won't be easy.
It's important to note, too, that while Obama's foreign policy outreach to longtime foes has been welcomed by a majority of Americans, it has yet to achieve anything. Holding out hope for talks with Iran and North Korea is all well and good, but what will Obama do if it leads to no progress in controling the spread of nuclear weapons? Even when Obama has moved decisively, the difficult work lies ahead. He has ordered the closing of the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, for example, but he has yet to figure out what to do with all the detainees housed there.
None of this is to detract from the high marks many give him for his first 100 days. But the point is that now he has to get his hands dirty, as analyst Stuart Rothenberg told Bloomberg this week. With so much to do and many top officials confirmed and at work, Obama has often had to be content with setting the agenda and leaving it to Congress and others to begin working on the details. That can't last much longer. Now he has to truly take command. What we'll see in the next 100 days as Obama moves to do that is how good he is at real leadership -- whether he can change minds, either through argument or by knocking heads, and whether he has the strength and ability to get the country to go in the direction he wants to pursue.