Apr 29 2009

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Obama’s First 100 Days

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By the statistics that matter to Washington, you have to congratulate President Obama on his first 100 days. On a range of personal attributes and policy prescriptions, he is receiving enviously high ratings from the American people for his conduct in office.

The President’s job approval rating ranges in the upper 60s, while his personal approval rating in 72%.1

And on the issues, Obama simply dominates.

On his handling of the economy, Obama scores 58% approval, on International Affairs, 67%, on Iraq, 71%, Afghanistan, 57% on “overseas contingency operations,” aka, the war on terror, 62%, on global warming, 61% and health care, 57%.  Even on taxes, Obama rates a 56% approval from the public. A very impressive 59% of Americans have confidence that Obama will make the right decisions for the future.2  And when asked whether Obama’s approach was new or business as usual, 63% of respondents said it was a new approach, defying all evidence to the contrary.3

That is consequential political capital.

And beyond his stand-alone ratings, Obama does well in comparison to his recent predecessors.

At the end of his first 100 days, the Washington Post said that Bill Clinton had diminished public expectations that he, or anyone, could turn the country around, with seven in ten saying that the country was headed in the wrong direction.4 Consider in contrast, that despite economic recession, financial uncertainty and continued war overseas, the percentage of Americans that believe the country is moving in the right direction has increased 12% since Election Day to a 48-44% majority.

Part of this is obviously generated by the simple absence of the Bush administration.  Opinions and the actual record aside, the drumbeat of negativity on the Bush administration, both at home and abroad, created a dynamic of its own that a new Administration has fundamentally changed. The very positive foreign commentary on President Obama, coupled with the historical nature of Obama’s election to the domestic electorate, has changed the national narrative in an optimistic manner.

But beyond numbers and atmosphere, how is the Obama administration doing?

Every Administration has teething pains as it assumes office and Obama is no different. The wheels clearly came off the storied Obama campaign as it took up residence in DC and began vetting federal appointments.

A shocking 30% of Obama’s Cabinet nominations have had tax problems, including Tim Geithner, who is ironically responsible for the IRS. That is unprecedented in modern times.  And this accounting does not include Governor Bill Richardson, who withdrew as Commerce Secretary Nominee due to an ongoing investigation in his home state, nor Nancy Kilefer, who was slated to be the nation’s Chief Performance Officer, but declined based on tax issues.

In contrast, none of President George W. Bush’s Cabinet nominees had tax issues.5

But where Zoe Baird’s “Nanny Problem” consumed the press in 1993, and was a major embarrassment for the Clinton administration, Obama has all but gotten a free pass for his tax-delinquent Cabinet nominees, with all but Daschle confirmed.

This ham-handedness in implementation flows into Obama’s commitment to the highest ethical standards, including barring lobbyists from serving in top positions.  By its own count, the Administration has granted six waivers from its own ethics rules. While this is a small number of total appointees, the exceptions are not being made for Administrative Assistants. The Deputy Secretary of Defense required a waiver given his previous position as chief lobbyist for Raytheon.

That is consequential.

This journal does not believe lobbyists are evil. For every Jack Abramoff, there are scores of private sector officials with unimpeachable integrity who legitimately exercise their rights to petition the government on behalf of their interests. And Bill Lynn, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, is highly qualified, having previously served in the Clinton administration in pivotal roles, crucially as head of acquisition, which will be a major sector in need of reform.

The problem is that by setting a bar and then immediately creating exceptions, Obama calls into question the Administration’s credibility and seriousness.  But like his nominee’s tax issues, this problem has not resonated outside the Beltway.

An Administration’s first weeks are filled with symbolism, exercised most immediately through Executive Orders that allow an Administration to place its stamp on policy and create distinctions with its predecessors.

On social issues, the President almost immediately rescinded the Bush Executive Order that banned US foreign assistance to organizations that perform abortions, allowing US tax dollars to flow to organizations that perform the procedure. It also rescinded the Bush era ban on stem cell research beyond existing stem cell lines, ostensibly allowing government researchers to destroy new embryos for their stem cells. NIH is in the process of developing a policy.6

In one his most celebrated early decisions, the President ordered that the US terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay be closed and invalidated Justice Department memoranda on enhanced interrogation procedures, limiting US interrogators to the US Army field manual to obtain useful intelligence from terrorists. The Order left open the actual disposition of the terrorists at Gitmo; where they would be transferred and under what criminal jurisdiction they will be tried, civil or military.7

And in humor and partially related actions, the Obama administration rebranded the Global War on Terror to the more neutral “Overseas Contingency Operations”, while the Department of Homeland Security considered “terrorist attacks” as too polarizing, and reframed them as “Man-caused disasters.” Of course, one is left wondering if the Administration had consulted the National Organization for Women on such an obvious male bias.  As we have sadly learned, women can be terrorists too.

In foreign policy, the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to distance itself from the Bush administration; in some cases making it seem that this was the only goal of American foreign policy. This was carried to extremes by the President himself as he criticized his predecessor and his policies on foreign soil in both Europe and Latin America. No matter how profound the disagreement, Obama is now the President and the past is the past. Such action seems small, petty, vindictive and unworthy of the Presidency.

In practice on foreign policy, the Obama administration has been all about multilateralism, engagement and humility.  In both Europe and Latin America, the President obliquely apologized for American behavior, and dipped his toe in the controversial waters of US moral responsibility for the use of nuclear weapons at the end of WWII.

The Administration has sought to reinvigorate relations with Europeans as well as the nations of Latin America. It has sought to create a new status relationship with Russia.

More controversially, the Administration has sought to reach out to countries that have been traditionally hostile to the United States, including Syria, Venezuela, and most importantly, Iran. It is way too soon to say if or how that will be successful.

Other results have not immediately been forthcoming. Despite Obama saying all the right things, the Europeans rebuffed Obama entreaties to create an American style economic stimulus program along Obama guidelines to spur global recovery, and politely refused a request to send additional troops to Afghanistan.

On Russia, the Administration has rashly elevated the importance of Putin’s country as a world player by promising a new round of old style nuclear arms reduction talks.

Given current, low nuclear levels – only 12% of their 1986 high due to the efforts of Presidents Reagan through George W. Bush – it is odd that a multilateral Administration would make this a bilateral effort, excluding other prominent nuclear powers such as the French, British and Chinese that could result in comprehensive global reductions. And by making the talks central to the US-Russian relationship, Russia will now have a seat at the table for other hitherto unrelated topics such as NATO expansion and more pressingly, anti-missile defenses in Poland and Czech Republic, which are aimed at Iran, not Russia.

The cold shower of reality hit the Administration’s new, regional “Special Ambassadors” who seemed to buy into the narrative that the simple absence of George W. Bush would make intractable foreign policy problems solvable.

Richard Holbrooke still faces significant issues in South Asia as Pakistan’s ineffective leadership tries to cope with Taliban insurgents. For his part, George Mitchell has found a new and formidable player in Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, who believes Iran, not the Palestinians is the primary problem in the Middle East.

Despite this, the Administration has made three positive and pragmatic decisions in foreign policy.

In Iraq, the President listened to his advisors and not DailyKos in creating a US troop withdrawal plan that is balanced, proportional and takes into account the security situation on the ground. It is ironic that a recent string of bombings in Baghdad has had the MSM calling into question whether a quick troop withdrawal will create instability in Iraq, contrary to US interests.  This was a singular Bush administration rationale for Iraq engagement that never saw the light of day in a US daily until Obama took over.

On Afghanistan, the President showed genuine leadership in beefing up the US troop presence by up to 25,000 and committing significant economic and developmental aid to this critical country.

Regarding Cuba, the President made a smart and overdue move to lift travel and other restrictions for family and relatives. This first step toward ending the US trade embargo that is a source of friction throughout Latin America is rooted in several factors.

First and most importantly, the embargo strategy has failed. The Castro regime has survived eleven presidential administrations, and is still firmly in control. No one else maintains the embargo, meaning Cuba can essentially get what it needs from other sources. Second, the embargo has served as a useful bogeyman for Cuban leaders to cover their own failings to provide for their people. Third, Cuba is in the midst of a leadership transition, and right now, the US has no seat at the table to influence that transition once Fidel Castro passes. Moving toward lifting the embargo provides US with fresh credibility. Finally and most importantly, this first step is humanitarian.  It is simply wrong to divide family members as this embargo has done.

When the world was in the middle of the Cold War and Cuba was aiming nuclear weapons at the United States, it made sense to have an embargo. Today, the only rationale for the embargo is malicious and vindictive.  Only 90 miles from the US, the biggest threat to the Castro regime is, in fact that the US does lift the embargo entirely. The Cuban government will not be able to control unfettered access.

On domestic policy, paraphrasing his immediate predecessor, President Obama doesn’t play “small ball.”  The incremental, poll-tested programs that President Clinton championed, such as the V-chips, school uniforms and midnight basketball, are crumbs to this Administration.

No, by any conventional or historical standard, President Obama is swinging for the fences. The breath of his ambition can be measured not simply in the programs he proposes, but rather the cumulative effect of those programs to fundamentally change American society and its underlying assumptions.  In this manner, the Obama program is breathtaking in its sheer scale and formidable goals, and if fully implemented, as large a change as the New Deal or Great Society.

And none of this should come as a surprise to Obama supporters or opponents, as a careful reading of campaign statements in retrospect makes it all startlingly clear.  Not that there hasn’t been a good bit of broken glass as we have moved from the campaign trail to sausage-making of legislation.

Obama promised a warm and optimistic “post-partisanship,” but what we have seen so far is nothing short of a hard edged, ideological, hyper-partisanship. This may account for why Obama, who is very popular, is still the most polarizing president in modern history, easily outscoring President Bush at this point in his presidency.8

The Stimulus Bill, passed ostensibly to immediately spur the economy, was effectively a Democratic wish list of social spending programs and government transfer payments, with the majority of those funds disbursed in 2010-11; anything but immediate.

Moreover, the bill was assembled exclusively by Democratic leaders, was never subject to hearings, committee mark ups or debate and was modified only to the extent necessary to get three Republican votes in the Senate.  There was no bipartisan outreach.

The same is true for the FY2010 budget that Congress is currently assembling. Instead of an open process where Obama priorities on health care, education and climate change will be debated, Democrats have stacked the deck with procedural hurdles that drastically limit the ability of critics to debate or amend the legislation, and thus make the Democrat version significantly easier for Congress to pass.

Under the process of “Reconciliation” which has been written into congressional budget instructions, a simple majority can pass the Obama budget in the Senate instead of the normal 60 votes, required to close off a filibuster.

Consider that with 59 seats in the Senate now (counting Party turncoat Arlen Specter – inventor, by the way, of the “single bullet theory” in the Kennedy assassination) and 60 if Norm Coleman concedes in Minnesota, it seems that Obama and the Democrats do not believe that they can count on the support of their own party in order to get the budget passed; an indication of how ideologically extreme some of the new policy prescriptions will be if passed.

The overriding enigma of Obama domestic policy to date is that it doesn’t add up.  The program in detail undermines its own goals, ironically making his policies the antithesis of the prosperity he ostensibly seeks.

A candidate who ran on fiscal responsibility and bashed the deficits of his predecessor, will effectively triple those deficit levels in his first budget. Moreover, under ideal Obama budget estimates, deficits will still hover at the $600 billion mark at the end of his first term.  The Congressional Budget Office believes it will be more…much more.9

A candidate who promised to revitalize economic growth for the US, indeed recognized how crucial growth is to ending the recession and bringing unemployment down, supports a myriad of policies and programs that effectively undermine that hoped for growth.

For instance, Obama proposes to raise taxes on the top 2% of wage earners, who are already paying almost 50% of federal taxes.10 He also proposed to eliminate a number of tax breaks for those earners, including deductions for charities that may deny upwards of $4 billion to various, worthy causes. This also includes small businesses that file as individuals. Such small businesses have traditionally been the engine of economic growth.11

Obama proposes a Cap N’ Trade system that monetizes greenhouse gas emissions (everything from refineries and power plants to your car) in an effort to reduce the US global carbon footprint.  By charging for emissions, Obama is essentially leveling a $600 billion tax increase that will stunt energy producers and ultimately be paid by consumers in higher gas and electric bills.

In health insurance, education and housing, Obama supports the creation of government competition with the private sector. The ability of the government to under-price the private sector will have a negative effect on health insurance companies, drug manufacturers and the already batter financial lending sector, costing growth and jobs. And cost savings in these programs, as outlined by the Administration itself, is little more that enforced scarcity, taking away individual choice in medical care and procedures.

Unprecedented federal interventions by Obama and Congressional Democrats on issues of the day have already had a hyper chilling effect on the private sector.

Consider the “witch-hunt” led ironically, by the Democratic perpetrators in Congress, over bonuses to be paid to AIG executives and subsequent legislative efforts to interfere with private sector pay for performance. Or Obama’s decision to fire the Chairman and Board of Directors of GM and order the restructuring of other automakers providing the UAW with ownership stakes.

Is it any surprise that the banks and financial institutions who have received bailout funds under the TARP program are frenzied to give the money back so as to get out from underneath Obama’s thumb?  Given Democratic thinking, is it any surprise that Secretary Geithner has stated he will refuse to take the returned funds to maintain federal control and influence until a certain standard is met?

In sum, at the 100 day mark, we see Administration plans domestically for truly massive increases in spending and regulation and a sea change in the perceived role of government in society. But the very changes that are intended to make life more equitable and sustainable appear to contradict the basic tenets of what is required for robust economic growth. On paper, the ledger shows red ink for as long as the eye can see, leaving it to our children’s children to pay for today’s indulgences.

In foreign policy, Obama-style multilateralism and engagement have yet to demonstrate anything more than positive atmospherics.  The threat of a truculent North Korea, a Pakistani collapse or Iranian nuclear breakout is real.  Negotiations, while desirable, are not a goal in themselves, but a means to an end.  The Obama team does not seem to have internalized that as of yet, with very difficult decisions coming down the road.

As for President Obama himself, despite very deep policy differences, this journal believes that the President has adapted well to the Office. No president since Reagan or Nixon has come to office with so many simultaneous problems. And to his political credit, Obama has carefully used these challenges as a door to force through much broader change than would otherwise be possible in less chaotic times.

Obama’s measured public persona has been helpful in situations where public emotionalism has gone beyond populist to vengeful. Moreover, the President has demonstrated seriousness and disciplined management style in his job that is more reminiscent of George W. Bush than the bull sessions of Bill Clinton. Decisions do, in fact, get made. The Administration as a whole has shown an increasing responsiveness to public concerns, that is more in tune with the reduce news cycle time, regardless of the perceived response.

More philosophically, we should move beyond the 100 days threshold for assessing presidents.  Despite the attention given to it, it almost never defines an Administration.  Bush will be remembered for 9-11 and Iraq, not for education legislation or a stand-off with the Chinese. Clinton is framed by Lewinsky, not gays in the military.

At 100 days, an Administration is just getting its sea legs. The political team of 5,000 is finally starting to come on-board. The machinery of government is just taking on the political shades of the new Administration. Six months or a year are a better measure.

And while most associate the 100 days with FDR and the New Deal, the real 100 Days of history applies to the period of time from Napoleon’s exile to Elba to his defeat at Waterloo, and subsequent, permanent exile to St. Helena.

For Obama and his appointees, it is worth remembering that Napoleon’s second rise was made possible by the manners and bearing of the Bourbon nobility who reassumed power after Napoleon’s fall, and in a short ten months so antagonized Army veterans and the people that Napoleon, who had left disgraced after 14 years in power, was welcomed back.

There may be hope yet for the Republicans.

1. Pollingreport.com – CNN and ABC News polls 4/21-24

2. ABC News Washington Post Poll 4/21-24

3. Pew Research Center Poll.

4. Washington Post – April 29, 1993

5. Linda Chavez stepped down as Labor Nominee over an alleged “Nanny Tax” problem with an illegal alien that was later thrown out of court.

6. Presidential Executive Orders, whitehouse.gov

7. Ibid

8. Pew Research Poll 4-2-09

9. Congressional Budget Office

10. Congressional Budget Office

11. Washington Post, March 26, 2009, A1


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