Over the next few days, with CNN devoting a full show on Thursday to it, we can expect the report cards to come in. With a decrease in approval ratings (down from a high of 62 per cent to a Real Clear Politics average of 54 per cent), we can anticipate a more critical look at the performance of the Obama administration. In the first 100 days, the evaluation was largely dictated by the novelty of a new President who was eloquent in expressing his vision and inspirational in his tone. He contrasted with his unpopular predecessor, thereby paving the way to a more indulgent political assessment.
It was evident that Obama intended to be an activist President and would act quickly on his major electoral promises. The promise of change was becoming an everyday reality and his Republican opponents seemed in disarray, unable to agree on a common message except responding “no” to efforts by Obama to forge a more bipartisan agenda after decades of increased polarization. The general consensus after the first 100 days was highly positive and a grade of A or B+ was not seen to be an exaggeration by independent observers.
Since then, we are still seeing an activist President acting as the communicator–in–chief, driving initiatives both internationally and domestically. The only difference is that the reality of governing is beginning to catch up with the administration. While this White House is possibly the most tightly knit group since the Reagan presidency, it cannot escape from the magnitude of the problems it has inherited. Two wars, an economy in deep recession, a loss of reputation on the world stage, along with growing problems in health care, the environment and education do not disappear overnight with a new occupant in the Oval Office. And it would not take long before the Obama team and its policies would have to be evaluated by its results. While the major problems were deep-rooted, the voter often lacks the patience to assess the long-term view. Unemployment has grown exponentially in recent months leading many to question the historic (in amounts of money) stimulus package and its impact. Americans are still dying in the conflicts abroad with a shift in losses from Iraq to Afghanistan. And the President’s signature issue, health-care reform, is stalled in Congress and losing support among the crucial independent voter. The further we move away from the Bush years , the more Obama is accountable. The second 100 days will surely result in a more mixed evaluation.
The president would certainly concede that the reality of governing is more than delivering a speech (which all concede he is great at doing) or giving a policy direction (which he never hesitates to do). It involves building support, it is getting the votes to pass needed legislation and obtaining tangible results. His recent misstep in the Gates-Crowley affair illustrates the complexity of actually governing. A local incident in Cambridge, Mass., derailed a pivotal press conference on the administration’s priority issue—resulting in a one-week diversion on racial politics. And it was self-inflicted.
A usually disciplined and strategic White House embarks on a campaign to produce a health-care bill only to see it challenged by a conservative opposition from within its own ranks, the so-called Blue Dog Democrats. And President Obama’s hopes and efforts for bipartisan solutions have been generally rebuffed by the Republicans. Fortunately for Obama, the Republicans seem as confused as they were in the first 100 days and are offering no real alternative policies, or else the impact on his approval numbers could be greater. Yet, while the President seems solidly in charge and has the numbers in Congress to advance his agenda, the honeymoon is now clearly over.
The key criteria for evaluating the second 100 days remain the economy, domestic issues, foreign policy and the President’s personal performance. On the economy, the results are decidedly mixed. The stock market has rebounded significantly after a disturbing dip in early spring and most experts concede that the risk of depression is gone and the recession may be bottoming out. No one expects a short-term job recovery but the stimulus plan still has to work its way through the economy. Many economists recognize that the administration has improved the economic prospects, while remaining worried about long-term deficits and spending. The grade should be a solid B.
On domestic issues, the President was successful in his selection of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the US Supreme Court—an historic and welcomed occasion for America. She will most likely be confirmed by the end of the week. The Clunker for Cash program seems to be working by general consensus, the U.S. car industry now has a lifeline and promising programs on credit and mortgages were adopted. The health-care issue has not, however, been as successful. Obsessed with not adopting the 1993 Clinton strategic approach to health care reform, the administration seems to have lost the upper hand it had in the first 100 days. This is serious for a President who has made this his signature domestic policy for his first term. The return of Congress in September will make this the defining issue for the next 100 days. In addition, expect battles on cap and trade and debate on budgetary issues. The grading here should be B minus.
On foreign policy, Obama has changed the dynamic. His openings in the Middle East are still too early to assess but it is a clear improvement on the Bush years. Initiatives with Russia and China are encouraging. Obama has changed the tone and is seen in a much more favorable light in the world community than his predecessor. Diplomacy and multilateralism are back in fashion. In addition to Obama, kudos must go to Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Bob Gates—an impressive team with a sense of direction and an understanding of its priorities. The recent success with President Clinton in liberating the two journalists from North Korea presents possibilities with respect to that country. The grade should be B+.
Finally, on the President’s personal performance, much has been written about the recent beer diplomacy. To assess real leadership, one needs to observe a President when faced with adversity. Obama has displayed a coolness and a grace under fire as well as a capacity for growth in the future. I remain most impressed by his comment that he was not on ‘a 24-hour news cycle.’ Conservative columnist David Brooks wrote recently in the New York Times about the search for dignity in our public life. He concluded that whatever one’s politics, Obama’s presidency “may revitalize the concept of dignity for a new generation.” I agree, and on that basis, he deserves an A+.