How is Obama doing?

It’s a fair question to ask as he begins the last third of the first 100 days. Polls indicate strong support for Obama, with figures around the 60% level. His policies , however, do not curry as much favour. Already, there are cracks within the Democratic congressional caucus as Blue Dog Democrats (conservatives and centrists) are coalescing to oppose what they see as excessive spending in the budget, specifically the $3.4 trillion dollar deficit and the massive bailout packages for the financial sector and the car manufacturers (the so-called Big Three).

The deficit represents a whopping 12.3% of GDP compared to deficits of 8.8% in the UK, 5.6% in France and 2.2 % in Canada. Job losses have grown significantly in recent months, with approximately two million job losses in the past three months. Unemployment is at 7.2% and growing. The stock market indices have steadily resisted making any significant gains since the stimulus package passed Congress. The performance of the markets may have improved in recent days, but not enough to hail a “turning of the corner.” Add to this the well-placed fury of the American public against AIG’s payment of retention bonuses to executives, and we can assume that the Obama administration is on a short leash. (It’s worth noting AIG may only be the tip of the iceberg regarding bonuses paid to executives of bailed out companies.) Meanwhile, the president is out in California and elsewhere doing town halls, television interviews (including the one scheduled to appear on CBS’s 60 Minutes next Sunday), and will appear on Jay Leno this week. There is rarely a news day without Obama announcing a new policy or explaining his actions to date. Clearly, this president intends to run a proactive presidency.

Some are already claiming the honeymoon will soon end despite no concrete evidence that it will. In the process, Obama has gone from painting a dire economic picture to projecting emerging optimism. He is helped by a cautious, but upbeat message from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke who, on 60 Minutes last week, hinted that the recession may begin to end by the last quarter of 2009. Moreover, Bernanke spoke of a severe recession but dismissed the chances of a depression despite his early fears. Housing starts are up, some banks are turning profits and even returning some bailout money. Should the administration manage to stabilize the banking sector and restrictions to credit financing start to ease, Obama may be shown to have been ahead of the curve.

That said, the criticism directed at Obama may not be completely unfounded. To many observers in the media, he appears to be all over the map, alternately focusing on a stimulus package of record proportions, major spending in health care, revamped education and energy policies, sending envoys to all the hotspots of the world, issuing executive orders, rescinding or reversing initiatives from the George W. Bush era, modifying the discourse in foreign affairs, and indulging a well-designed spat with Rush Limbaugh. Obama’s appearance on the Tonight Show and his predictions for the NCAA basketball playoffs add weight to his detractors’ claims that the president is trying to do too much too fast and may, as a result, fail to solve the biggest problem of all, the economic crisis. Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, and Warren Buffett, an early Obama supporter, have already expressed some concern. And we know ” Boss” Limbaugh has publicly stated his wish that Obama fail.

Is he therefore on the path to failure or success? Surely, it is too early to tell. But Obama seems to have a solid grasp of history and the realities of the modern presidency. History teaches us that a failure to set the course in the early stages of the first mandate can compromise the opportunity to enact the policies and objectives later on. Congress is also gearing up for the mid-terms in 2010—how else can you explain the vocal opposition of Blue Dog Democrats or the Republicans’ towing of the Limbaugh line?—and Democrats are fearful Obama may not show enough progress on the economy in time for the 2010 electoral showdown. The GOP, on the other hand, simply wants to be able to say “I told you so” and prove ol’ Rush was right all along. However, when one listens to Obama and his rhetoric, there is a linkage between the economy, education, health care, energy, securing the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan, restoring the integrity of science, and ending Bush’s policies of torture and lawlessness. His is more a ‘teacher-presidency’ in its early stages, and it takes repetition and time to connect the dots in a world of competitive media and messages. On the night of his victory last November, the freshly-elected president made it clear he would not govern for the next poll or the next election. He wanted to set America on a durable course for the long term. Unlike his predecessor Bush who had trouble putting a coherent sentence together, let alone putting two thoughts together, Obama has expressed a vision and displayed the temperament to deal with the modern presidency in these perilous times.

The criticism by detractors about the rock star and leisure side of his presidency may have some resonance with some mainstream media. Respected NBC reporter, Mark Halperin, not usually a vociferous critic of Obama, criticized the president for sending mixed messages at a time of economic hardship and suggested going on Jay Leno’s show is not appropriate. This doesn’t factor in how Barack Obama has conducted himself in the public domain. America wants the real thing, not an actor with talking points. If anything, Obama has shown a masterful grasp of the media and has never wavered in his confidence in the “better nature of Americans.” This explains why Americans think he is doing a good job. And more importantly, why they want him to succeed.

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