In 100 days, Obama delivers change he promised
As the pols, pundits and people prepare to fill out their scorecards on Barack Obama's first 100 days - April 30 is the day; late scorecards will not be accepted - we ought to ask first, compared to what?
The 100-days test, as arbitrary and pointless as any exercise in commentary, begins as a historical reference. Nobody paid much attention to the 100-day milestone before 1933, but since Franklin D. Roosevelt had such a productive first lap, no one's been able to ignore it every four years since.
FDR signed more major pieces of legislation into law during his first 100 days than anyone else, restructuring banking, agriculture and federal spending - repealing Prohibition, too. Lyndon B. Johnson had a stong start as well, using the shock over the Kennedy assassination and his own mastery of the Senate to get historic civil rights and Great Society legislation enacted.
In terms of legislative accomplishment, you can put Obama up there with FDR and LBJ, Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, who wrote a best-seller on FDR's first 100 days, told a recent conference at the JFK Library, and nobody else even comes close.
The stimulus bill alone, which Obama signed into law less than a month after taking office, is historic in several ways, Alter said. It includes the largest investment in public infrastructure since Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway System, the largest anti-poverty program since LBJ, and the largest tax cut in history.
Rep. Ed Markey told me the stimulus bill is also the largest energy bill in history. It increases weatherization grants from $200 million last year to $6 billion this year. It includes a massive investment in broadband technology as well, and the largest expansion of high-speed rail ever.
"It feels like we're already two years into the Obama administration," Markey said.
And that's just one bill. Congress authorized Obama to spend $700 billion in TARP II funds to save the financial industry even before his inauguration. Obama has also signed laws providing health insurance for 11 million children and making it easier to sue employers for wage discrimination. Last week he signed into law the largest commitment to volunteer service since FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps.
The Democrats who run Congress deserve most of the credit for legislative accomplishments, of course. Some of these bills were moving toward enactment long before Obama was sworn in, and you will always get swifter action when the same party controls Congress and the White House. But John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton also had Democrats controlling both houses of Congress, and they didn't get nearly as much legislation enacted early in their terms as Obama has.
And there's more to come. Obama will soon sign his budget, as ambitious a document as Washington has seen in a long time, which makes a downpayment on his top campaign priorities: health care reform, energy and education. His first-year agenda also includes re-regulating the financial industry and reforming immigration.
What else has Obama achieved? On foreign policy, he's hit the reset button all around the world. He's opened new talks with Russia on nuclear disarmament; he has begun reaching out to Iran; he's changing course with Cuba. Obama has repaired relations with Europe and launched a concerted effort to build support for American values in the Muslim world.
As he promised, Obama has implemented a new strategy in Iraq based on a timetable for troop withdrawals. As promised, he has changed strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, committing more resources to that deteriorating region. Whether these strategies will succeed is anyone's guess, but there's no question that these are now Obama's wars.
Obama has taken control of the fates of two-thirds of Detroit's Big Three automakers. He has created new programs to stem the foreclosure crisis, strengthen teetering banks and clean up the toxic assets that have strangled the credit markets.
He has set new policies on climate change, instructing his EPA to prepare to regulate greenhouse gases, fashioning new and ambitious energy legislation, and charting a new course for international negotiations.
Oh yes, and he has set a historic record for budget deficits and racked up trillions of dollars in federal debt.
Obama has built a strong team that - so far - seems to be functioning well. Close observers - including conservative columnist David Brooks and the Washington Post's David Broder - say they are most surprised by how good a manager the inexperienced Obama has turned out to be.
There's been little talk of administration infighting, despite the presence of some extra-large egos. With the exception of the protocol chief, who has caught some flak over poor gift choices for foreign leaders, the White House seems to be running smoothly. Obama is always on TV, always doing something, but he rarely steps on his own message - an unfortunate joke on the Leno show being the exception - and he never seems to break a sweat.
Obama's choice of Robert Gates to stay on at Defense looks good. The transition to new strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan began before Obama's inauguration and has proceeded smoothly. From a position of strength, Gates has launched an assault on waste in procurement, laid out a blueprint for a realignment of military forces, and begun killing outmoded weapons systems.
Obama's first foreign crisis, the skirmish with the Somali pirates, ended happily for everyone but the three dead pirates. He'll be tested again, but he came through his first looking decisive and cool-headed.
As with all politicians, the proof of success is in the polls, and Obama scores high there as well. A new Pew poll found that 73 percent of Americans consider him favorably, well ahead of Bill Clinton (60 percent) and George W. Bush (61 percent) as they hit the 100-day mark.
And just about everybody loves the first family. Michelle Obama is viewed favorably by 76 percent of Americans, up sharply from January and well ahead of Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush at this point.
But the most remarkable poll numbers come on the wrong track/right direction question. The latest Associated Press poll found that, despite two wars and the deepest recession in a generation, more Americans feel the country is headed in the right direction (48 percent) than on the wrong track (44 percent) - for the first time since January 2004. The right direction number is up 31 points from last October and eight points from February. Obama must be doing something right.
The approval isn't unanimous, of course. In terms of concrete accomplishments, Obama compares well to his predecessors, but if you didn't like what he was promising to do, you aren't pleased at his success in doing it.
Nor has Obama slugged a home run every time he's approached the plate. Several of his nominees have hit bumps in the road. Elements of several of his major policy proposals - on health care financing, carbon cap and trade and farm subsidies - were DOA on the Hill. His diplomacy has produced smiles from foreign leaders and cheers from foreign crowds, but not any major concessions. His efforts to extend a hand to Republicans have been even less productive. He got just three Republican votes on his stimulus bill, and none on his budget.
Don't expect Obama to acknowledge either over-reaching or under-performance, though. He seems happy to accept half-a-loaf and promise he'll be back later for the other half. He'll compromise, even on what seem to be issues of principle like whether to prosecute those involved in the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogations." He has dodged "culture wars" issues like gay marriage and drug law reform with a cold pragmatism that alienates some on the left.
But he keeps moving the ball down the field, taking plays for short yardage instead of risking it all throwing long passes. He is concentrating on avoiding turnovers, and will settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown if that's what it takes to put points on the board.
That style shouldn't surprise anyone. "No Drama Obama" steered his way through a year-long campaign with a steady hand, rarely overreacting to fleeting events and storylines, holding to his long-term strategies. As a president, he knows there are four quarters in this game, and he is now about three minutes into the first quarter.
"I'm a big believer in persistence," Obama said at a press conference last month. "That whole philosophy of persistence is one that I'm going to be emphasizing again and again in the months and years to come as long as I'm in this office."
That's why I expect Obama isn't taking all this 100 days stuff too seriously. He knows enough about history to understand that most presidents have more luck pushing their agenda in their first year in office than any time after, so he's making the most of the moment. But he also knows that the only thing the arrival of the 100th day really means is he's got another 1,361 days to go.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at email@example.com.