In the span of 100 days in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte escaped his exile on the island of Elba, regained the crown of emperor, and then went down to eventual defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. In 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt used his first 103 days in office to launch an array of emergency legislation that remade the American economy and created the New Deal—in the process drawing comparisons to the fast-moving Corsican. Since then, it has been a ritual to judge presidents on their first 100 days—the period when maximum energy pulsates through the White House, with a new president enjoying public support and still far enough away from congressional mid-term elections that he can get the tough things done.
George W. Bush’s first 100 days appeared competent, if modest: he launched an initiative to allow faith-based groups to access government money for social programs, abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, initiated an energy task force, and began the push for education reform and tax cuts. Bill Clinton’s first 100 days were rockier: he succeeded in pushing through Congress a massive budget in record time but became mired in controversies over cabinet appointments, gays in the military, and the ill-fated health care reform led by his wife.
But there has not been a first 100 days quite like Barack Obama’s since FDR—whose example Obama has purposefully studied. Given the financial and economic crisis he faced, it was assumed Obama would put his ambitious political program on hold to deal with the economy. He did the opposite. Rather than focus, he multi-tasked. Rather than move cautiously, he thought big. Obama has not kept pace with FDR’s cavalcade of 15 major pieces of legislation made into law or numerous executive actions, but his campaign promise of “change” is being felt across a variety of policy areas, causing alarm in Republican circles about the transformation of entire sectors of the economy.
Within two weeks of taking office, the President had pushed through Congress a US$787-billion stimulus package. He then offered a US$3.6-trillion budget plan for fiscal year 2010 that lays the groundwork for universal health insurance and for a climate change policy that would reduce carbon emissions and begin moving the nation away from carbon-based energy to renewables. His military policy dramatically shifted the focus from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama moved quickly on other issues: loosening rules on federal funding for stem cell research, restoring funding for overseas groups that offer abortion services, and tightening environmental regulations. His foreign policy is a work in progress, but it has included overtures to Iran and a thawing of relations with Cuba and Venezuela.
But in other areas, the “change” has been muted—and has in fact showed a large degree of continuity with Bush. In the controversial area of detainee policy, Obama did require the CIA to strictly obey torture rules, and shut down their secret prisons while ordering the detention centre at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, closed (that goal remains a work in progress). But while those moves appeared to be a dramatic break from Bush’s policy, the Obama administration has also pushed hard to maintain the power to hold terrorism suspects without court oversight at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, adopting the Bush legal team’s arguments that courts have no jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus lawsuits by detainees who are flown there instead of to Guantánamo. Critics say such use of Bagram means the closing of Guantánamo is more symbolism than substance. Meanwhile, a federal judge ruled this month that detainees captured in third countries, away from the battlefields of Afghanistan (in this case, two Yemenis and a Tunisian), and flown to Bagram (where they have been held for six years without lawyers), have the same rights as people flown to Guantánamo. The administration is appealing the case.
And while Obama has taken some steps to improve government transparency, he is fighting to protect some areas of secrecy. For example, his lawyers are fighting tenaciously to shut down a lawsuit over Bush’s policy of wiretapping U.S. citizens without warrants—recycling Bush’s arguments to the courts that the lawsuit should be thrown out because it would violate state secrets.
The Obama administration has also said that they would continue the extraordinary rendition program that sometimes has the CIA delivering a detainee to a third country without extradition proceedings. Officials say they will seek the same kind of diplomatic assurances that the Bush administration obtained that a detainee would not be tortured—which critics contend are insufficient. The administration counters that it is conducting a comprehensive review of all detainee policies that it has inherited, and expects to complete the review this summer. In the meantime, officials say, it would be unwise to change the program until the administration has determined what the new policy should be.
Obama has also continued Bush’s practice of issuing so-called signing statements instructing the executive branch that it does not need to obey sections of new laws that he says unconstitutionally infringe on his own powers. Among other things, Bush had used such a device to challenge a congressionally passed torture ban. Obama has used the tactic on less controversial laws, but some critics contend that the constitution only gives a president power to veto an entire bill if he thinks it is wrong.
On the question of torture, Obama appears to be trying to strike a middle ground. He has claimed to be stopping such practices, and took the extraordinary step of releasing memos that detail the Bush administration’s sometimes chilling legal analysis of what techniques of physical and psychological abuse are permissible. On the other hand, Obama has said he will not hold accountable any interrogators who relied on Bush-era legal analysis in conducting interrogations. While he initially rejected calls for the prosecution of policy makers involved in the program, on Tuesday he did say that such a decision would be considered by his attorney general, Eric Holder. But Obama said his preference is to “look forward, not back.” Critics have already responded. “It is one of the deepest disappointments of this administration that it appears unwilling to uphold the law where crimes have been committed by former officials,” said the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based group that has brought several lawsuits on behalf of detainees. And the UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, has gone so far as to say that Obama’s failure to investigate and prosecute officials for the American torture program violates international law. “The United States, like all other states that are part of the UN convention against torture, is committed to conducting criminal investigations of torture and to bringing all persons against whom there is sound evidence to court,” Nowak told the Austrian daily Der Standard.
On the crucial issues of the economy, the new administration has also shown some continuity with Bush policies. Obama and his treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, followed in the footsteps of Bush’s secretary Henry Paulson in their bailout of the financial sector—an approach that liberal economists have criticized as imposing too much risk, and not enough reward, on taxpayers. Some on the left have called for nationalization of banks, a step Obama continues to resist. Meanwhile, critics complain that the administration is not doing enough to address the problem of bankers who have pocketed bonuses but are not easing credit for consumers and homeowners who face rising credit card interest rates and foreclosures. Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard professor chairing an independent oversight panel of the bailout, told Geithner at an oversight hearing on Tuesday, “People are angry because they are paying for programs that haven’t been fully explained and that have no apparent benefit for their families or the economy as a whole, but that seem to leave enough cash in the system for lavish bonuses and golf outings. None of this seems fair.”
The financial bailout programs have also been criticized as too secretive. “In his rhetoric, President Obama has made government transparency a priority,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a government watchdog group that litigates for the disclosure of government records. “Of course, he has hundreds of priorities these days. In practice, it has been another matter. In particular, they are withholding information concerning the expenditures of trillions of dollars in bailout funds, the details of which continue to be withheld from the American people.”
In the end, the economy remains the most pressing issue for most Americans and the number one criteria by which Obama’s presidency will be judged. The President said recently he sees “glimmers” of hope in the economy, but with rising foreclosures and mounting job losses, those glimmers remain faint indeed. Americans and their President can only hope the economy will improve in the next 100 days. Until it does, there is no ruling out a Waterloo.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.