|President Barack Obama|
In his first post-election interview in late 2008, with 60 Minutes, President Obama discussed plans for his new Administration and indicated that he had been studying Roosevelt's First One Hundred Days. He talked about what he hoped to achieve in his own early days and added that, while the first 100 days would be important, it would be the first 1000 days that would make all the difference.
Monday, October 17, is the President's 1000 day anniversary. In the spirit of taking the President at his own word, in an effort to determine whether he has made the difference he sought to make, let's review the record.
The Economic Crisis
President Obama entered office, as he has never tired of reminding us, having inherited a bad situation. Despite this fact, and despite the Administration's ongoing reluctance to accept any responsibility for the mess we continue to find ourselves in, the President has simply not delivered on the promise of change we can believe.
In the early days of his Administration, backed by a unified and dominant Democrat Party and supported by a media and public adulation that at times bordered on a cult of personality, he was given extraordinary leeway to solve the nation's deep financial crisis. Before he had even taken office, George Bush sought his input regarding the second release of the TARP financial bailout, and the Congress allowed the release of the funding only on the assurance that Obama would "rebrand" it.
It is important not to forget that. At least half of the TARP funds which were intended to shore up the nation's financial institutions were effectively under Obama's control and he must bear some responsibility for the public discontent that is now manifesting itself across the land.
The problem with the Administration's handling of their portion of the TARP funds was that, like Bush's handling, the funds were given away without any effective controls on the banks' use of the money and with little incentive for banks to pump money into the economy through loans designed to give business a chance to grow The President and his Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner were not even able to limit the handing out of bonuses by AIG and the financial industry's other worst offenders except through publicly shaming them and telling them, as Obama did, that he was the only thing standing between them "and the pitchforks."
Putting aside the question of whether making such comments was good politics especially when "the pitchforks," by definition in such a formulation, can just as easily be trained on you it is not beyond the realm of legitimate inquiry to ask why the President gave the money with so few strings attached in the first place.
Further, while the banks have largely repaid the borrowed money, they continue to sit on piles of cash in anticipation of a future insolvency crisis brought on by the remaining bad loans and damaged balance sheets, coupled with increasingly stressed household debt. Effectively what the Administration and the Fed have done is to reward the banks for not making loans, by shoring up their books without requiring anything in return.
Meanwhile, some households have been able to restructure their consumer debt by lengthening the timelines on mortgages, but they have not been able to receive any help from the Administration on reducing the actual costs of the loans by aligning principle amounts with the newly lowered values of their homes and buildings. As Neil Barofsky, the recently-resigned overseer of the TARP program, complained, the Administration has helped Wall Street at the expense of Main Street, and ultimately saved the financial industry while ignoring the country.
Of course, not everyone was ignored. The Administration took over the auto industry in its early days and pumped large amounts of money, through the stimulus program, into funding for schools and state and local government. But now, after some time has passed, the public has begun to wonder about even these priorities. Ford Motor Company did not take offered funding and survived just fine. And the money pumped into the economy through stimulus didn't seem to have the desired effect. First, there were fewer shovel-ready projects than we were promised there would be. And then, despite the fact that the Administration promised that unemployment would not top the 8 percent mark if we would but give them the purse strings, the economy has faltered and sputtered along to the point that even the unions despite the hand-wringing on the right that Obama has given the government over to organized labor have begun to question his effectiveness.
In short, the Administration has taken a bad situation and made it, well, worse. They have not only kicked the can down the road in terms of solving any potential problems with insolvency, they have done absolutely nothing to impress upon the banks that they must change their ways. They have rewarded bad behavior and passed the costs on to consumers. And the President continues to turn a tin ear to the complaints of those who don't have jobs and to those who are stuck with the bill and to those who sought change but still haven't found it.
Let's be fair about the analysis above. It is unclear that anyone else could have done better. The economy is a multi-headed, international beast that reacts in its own ways to the pursuit of almighty profits. While in hindsight it is clear that the President's policies did little to tame the beast, it is also certain that the forces which drive the beast were in place long before Mr. Obama showed up on the scene. The fact that he and his economic team have not seemed up to the task of fixing it may be excused somewhat, and we may ask if the unrealistic hopes placed upon him are at least partly responsible for the disappointment now evident in our ongoing political discourse. We may reasonably ask why he made promises he couldn't fulfill, but in asking that question we should keep in mind that there were forces beyond his control that have negatively impacted his chances for success.
In other domestic policies, however, we have every right to question some of the directions he has taken.
President Obama promised transparency when he entered office. One of the cornerstones of that transparency was supposed to be a policy of posting bills passed by Congress for five days before he signed them, so that the public could review what the government was doing. It came as something of a surprise, therefore, that he broke this promise on the very first piece of legislation that crossed his desk. In signing the equal pay discrimination act that allowed women better rights to sue companies that discriminated against them, it was unclear why there was such a big rush. I do not mean that there was no need for the law. I mean that, by so brazenly backing off a campaign pledge, the President signaled that now that he was in office he would not be held accountable by his promise of accountability.
And so he has failed to shut down Guantanamo. And he has extended Mr. Bush's tax cuts. And he has taken what were already egregious invasions of privacy in the Patriot Act to their logical extremes. Those who complained vociferously about the government's ability to check library records have apparently lost all interest now that one of their own is tracking phones and attempting to track cars. He traded ensuring our values by the elimination of enhanced interrogations for a complete disregard for due process with the creation of kill lists targeting Americans and other for what is essentially assassination. He has decried the power of oil lobbyists, while apparently giving over the Energy Department to lobbyists who wear green.
For the first two years in office Mr. Obama had a Congress that basically pushed through whatever he chose to ask. From the stimulus package to healthcare, from Dodd-Frank to consumer protections, the President and the Democrat-run Congress had their run of the legislative landscape. That they didn't pass comprehensive immigration reform is curious. The President has blamed the Republicans. It is true that the party that denied Bush a victory in this area would have also fought Obama mightily. But they also fought him on Cap and Trade, which he at least tried, and on healthcare, which he won. He didn't even try on immigration. One wonders whether the support of Hispanics in the upcoming election will reflect this failure.
That is indicative of Mr. Obama's burden on the domestic front. He has made his career by trading on outsized expectations and promising things to his different constituencies that he cannot deliver. The chickens are coming home to roost now. He has failed to address the problem of black unemployment. He waited until the last possible moment with his Democratic majority to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. He has done little to push up the timeframe for establishing guidelines for Wall Street reform. He has not supported the unions except with largely empty rhetoric as they have had long-fought gains rolled back in the wake of these harsh economic times. And yet he pushed so hard on other policies that one began to wonder whether he cared for the rule of law and process. Remember Deem and Pass?
While the President remains in his better moments a passionate advocate for reform, he has not used his political capital wisely enough, often enough. The outrage on the right is in direct response to his overreaches. The unrest on the left is a result of his waffling uncertainty.
If it sounds as though I am suggesting above that President Obama has often looked like his predecessor, down to the point that he has taken a great deal of fire from his supporters for not being stronger on their issues while simultaneously seeking a kind of rhetorical cover that gives fuel to his critics, it is because that is exactly what I am suggesting. So many of the policies of President Obama with the large exception of healthcare and the smaller exception of education have been essentially a distinction without a difference from those put forward by the Bush Administration. If that is so in domestic policy, it is almost doubly true in foreign policy.
But here I am talking about the Bush foreign policy of the candidate Bush, the one who sought a &
|The President remains a passionate advocate for reform, but he has not used his capital wisely.|
quot;more humble" foreign policy, only to act, when push came to shove, aggressively and without regard for others.
The President's detractors have criticized him for publicly humiliating some of our most loyal and symbolic allies. In this they have a point, if one wants to argue that failing to hold a suitable gift exchange with Gordon Brown is a crime, or forcing Benjamin Netanyahu to wait in a side room is a harsh public rebuke, or that cancelling meetings with the Dalai Lama at the behest of the Chinese is a show of poor diplomacy. However, the President seems to operate according to a more nuanced view of America's role in the world than perhaps any of his predecessors have had. He sees the United States as just one of many important countries, and he has treated the Eurozone, the BRIC nations, and the United Nations as important bodies in international decision-making. This is probably a good thing. Despite the calls on the part of the Republicans for a stronger hand worldwide, it is unclear that the United States does itself any favors in the long run by throwing its weight around and acting unilaterally.
The problem with this view, of course, is that by ceding authority we have not removed ourselves from the finger pointing that has accompanied the more traditional role that America has played as superpower. It is important to remember here that as President Carter attempted to do something similar with foreign policy, giving over control of the Panama Canal for example, he found himself locked in a moment that seemed to indicate that the Iranians, at least, viewed his cooperative spirit not as a sign of goodwill, but as a sign of weakness.
There are those perhaps in the world today the Iranians and the Chinese among them who seem to see President Obama not as a new friend but merely as another face of American oppression. They have not reacted in kind to our calls for a more temperate peace. It may be a damned if you do and damned if you don't proposition. But Mr. Obama has sought to change the nature of our international relations to one of cooperation and peace rather than peace through strength. The results have been mixed.
Having won the Nobel Peace Prize as a part of the Nobel committee's trifecta entitled Anybody But Bush the trifecta consisting of Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and Mr. Obama the President has looked for ways to earn the honor, but with only sporadic results. It is in his failures that his most serious foreign policy failures can be seen. He has held out a promise to the Palestinians that they could achieve statehood on a fast track timeframe, only to pull the promise when they attempted to hold him to it. He has pulled troops out of Iraq only to place them in Afghanistan. He has increased the use of drones to bomb terror targets in nations across the Middle East. He has invaded Pakistan and killed bin Laden, simultaneously winning the favor of his own nation while alienating a two-faced ally. He has gunned down Somali pirates in the open sea. And he has apparently forgetting our long won strictures on invading another country in which we have oil interests in order to depose a leader we do not like bombed Libya without any provocation. If all this does not exactly sound like the resume one would expect from a Nobel Peace Prize winner, just remember that it was not Bush that did it. That somehow, apparently, makes it better.
What a Difference 900 Days Make
When the nation celebrated Obama's 100 day anniversary, his approval ratings were hovering around 55 percent. The debate around the stimulus had taken its toll on his 80 percent approval ratings upon entering office, and the nation had begun to grow a little weary of his face on every magazine cover and his presence on every television talk show, but he was still feted as a remarkably cool presence in a time of great stress. He was afforded the benefit of the doubt for the occasional misstep, because so many people believed that he would ultimately work tirelessly for their benefit. We believed this because he consistently told us this in soothing and comforting tones. He told us he "would not rest" until he had achieved whatever policy of the moment was "his highest priority," and he spoke with just the right kind of assurance and humor, so that we thought we could trust him. We hoped we could.
Then came the fumbling of the promised recovery, and the grumbling about his predecessor, and the tumbling of the stock market. Then came the stupidity in the handling of the optics the golf and the trips and the tournament brackets. Then came the boasting and the challenges and the seeming arrogance of a President who was supposed to bring us together but instead kept reminding us that he was "keeping score" and that those who didn't agree with him could get in the "back of the bus." Then the bus got a flat tire. And the wheels fell off. And he asked his supporters to get out and push while he jetted off to Copenhagen.
Except that Copenhagen wasn't good for him either. He failed to bring home the Olympics and his climate change speech failed to secure a deal. And there was hypocrisy in the fact that he passed healthcare and immediately began handing out exemptions to his friends. And there was hypocrisy in that he called on others to do what he was unwilling to do himself take tough stances, put the people's interests ahead of their own, speak more civilly to each other. And even all of this may have been forgiven but for the fact that the economy kept failing, keeps failing. And yet, he is in campaign mode.
So consequently folks have come to wonder whether it is worth it pouring their hopes and dreams into this man who speaks such lovely phrases in such measured tones but seems not to get their troubles or not to care, or both. This man whose skin seems thin. Whose promises seem thin.
This is a harsh assessment of Mr. Obama. But it is one that is increasingly shared by a number of people in the electorate. Now as we approach the 1000 day mark of his Administration, Obama's approval hovers somewhere around 45. (For comparison, Bush was right around 55 percent at a similar point in his first term.) While there are those in the American public who never gave the guy a chance from Day 1, it is also clear that many of those who have tried to keep the faith with Mr. Obama have begun wondering just what they must do to keep believing in him. He seems to live in a bubble, where the nation's concerns do not make it through to his attention. He recently ignored the African American community's legitimate concerns about unemployment and told them, essentially, to quit their carping and put on their marching shoes and line up behind him. As if to say
Get out and push the bus. Or drag it if you have to. But just don't bother me with your complaints.
While it is unclear what other options will be available to us on election day, it is growing increasingly clear that many people who pulled the lever for him last time will have to think long and hard before doing so again. We do not know how a President Obama would govern like during a prosperous time. But we are beginning to wonder if, as long as he is in charge, that is even a possibility.