What Obama's First 100 Days Show Us

Washington Matters

What Obama's First 100 Days Show Us

With less than a week to go in President Obama's first 100 days, pundits of all shape and bent are readying their report cards on how the new commander in chief is doing. A hundred days is obviously a pretty arbitrary -- and short -- testing period, but it has its uses, not so much in toting up the pluses and minuses, though that can be helpful, but in figuring out what it tells us about what to expect in the months ahead

Obama's record is clearly mixed. He jumped out of the box facing massive problems but still intent upon  pursuing an incredibly ambitious agenda, undoubtedly knowing the best he could do was get a start. His early days were marked by more partisanship, obvious disappointments, and a slow-starting Treasury Department that needed to move with super speed on super-complicated problems. It is taking Obama longer than he wanted to fill key jobs, and he's suffered setbacks, most notably the withdrawals of Cabinet picks Tom Daschle, Judd Gregg and Bill Richardson.
But he succeeded in passing a big stimulus bill in record time -- though not as big as he would have liked and without the Republican votes he wanted. He's also had to scale back his plan for financing health reform and while he's still pushing for a cap-and-trade emission system, immigration reform and a host of other ideas, it's clear these will take longer and he'll be settling for less. On the other hand, he managed to implement some new programs in the first 100 days, such as wider federal stem cell research and an expansion of national service.
Looking ahead, though, Obama has some reasons for optimism. He's changed the face of the presidency at home and abroad, making it clear he aims to effect major change. He's popular at home and abroad, too, even though he has suffered setbacks and has increasingly riled up the conservative right and upset some on the liberal left. He's also shown he will be a president not outwardly worried about changing his position, which he has done on matters related to past interrogation of terrorist suspects. Obama will strike a compromise if necessary, risking a flip-flop label and the ire of supporters.

Stimulus money will be doled out over two years and Obama will take credit for creating and saving jobs. There are already some signs the economy is improving, though not because of the stimulus. How the economy does will ultimately define Obama's presidency.

Combat troops in

Afghanistan could prove more thorny with an extended stay and little help from European nations. Considering the country is largely ungovernable and tribal, the U.S. mission could get bogged down and an exit plan less certain and Obama will suffer for it.

On the financial rescues, it's possible more bailout money won't be needed from Congress. Still, much of it is messy, and there already are reports of alleged fraud and abuse in how bailout money has been used. That will fan public outrage for awhile yet.

A health care bill on his desk later this year? There's a good chance, and Obama could take credit for something that has been bottled up for decades. He'll have the opportunity to show some good faith with Republicans in negotiating the bill, but Democrats will use budget tools to circumvent a Senate filibuster if Republicans stand united in opposition.

Obama scores well on meetings with foreign leaders in Europe, Canada and Latin America in his few trips to date. While there is criticism in some circles for his meeting and smiling photo-ops with foes of the U.S., he has been well received overseas, even eagerly welcomed in foreign capitals, and he has carried and delivered a positive and engaged image and message. His meeting with the G-20, for instance, was successful, even if not entirely productive on policy. He has also raised the profile of nuclear proliferation, an issue largely ignored by the Bush administration except in isolated cases such as Iran and North Korea. Obama and the Russians have agreed to restart talks to reduce their nuclear arsenals and he trying to create a united global front against countries seeking the materials needed for nuclear weapons.

There are potential pitfalls coming up, though. Age-old tensions in the Middle East, for instance, are not cured in a few months. Iran and North Korea won't drop differences with the West anytime soon. Russia will remain skeptical and standoffish about the U.S., despite entreaties by Obama. China will focus on its own economic rise for years yet, not on partnering in difficult international peace initiatives. The big question is what will Obama do if his outreach isn't reciprocated. At what point, does he try something else?

Partisanship will only intensify, despite early efforts by Obama to reach out to the Republican minority, including in some of his Cabinet picks. Look for much more of it as his administration seasons and fights brew over expensive domestic policy initiatives, deficit reduction and maybe a Supreme Court replacement or two.