The only real grade Barack Obama can be given for his first 100 days is an “incomplete.” He has been remarkably fast out of the blocks–arguably getting off to the best start of any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt and the “original” 100 days–but the presidency is a long-distance race, not a sprint. A good start is important, but the real tests are yet to come.
Obama has lifted the spirits and the confidence of a great nation in trouble. He is continually the adult in the room–thoughtful, intelligent, well-spoken and composed. Most Americans are proud to be represented by him abroad–and most of us feel better about ourselves for having elected him.
In foreign policy, that presence has been a stark contrast to his predecessor. Allies and adversaries alike look on America differently as a result. Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, on the whole, have been cautious, but he has clearly signaled a new direction: easing travel to Cuba, embracing the allies, “re-setting” our relationship with Russia, paying respects to Islam, gearing up for dialogue with Iran and the Middle East.
He’s done symbolic things that have great meaning: ordering the closing of Guantanamo, fulfilling his promise to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq, and publishing the torture memos to help bring light into that shameful chapter of executive lawlessness. He’s launched a new effort on disarmament that will hopefully begin to reduce the stocks of nuclear weapons and help reverse their proliferation.
But real tests lie ahead. Will China, Japan, Germany and other export nations adjust now that the U.S. can no longer be consumer to the world? Will the U.S. lead an effort to regulate the global market on banks, speculation, labor rights, and consumer and environmental protections? Will Afghanistan turn into a quagmire and Pakistan a nuclear nightmare? Will the Middle East blow up again? Can the staggering misery spread by the economic collapse across the world be stemmed?
Similarly, here at home, Obama has started fast. His recovery plan contained the largest increase in support for the working poor since the Great Society. The budget made a real commitment to energy, education and health care. The banks have been propped up by literally trillions of dollars in added subsidies and guarantees.
But again the real challenges are yet to come. The banks have been given a transfusion, but Americans are still hemorrhaging jobs and homes. Bankers are putting aside taxpayers’ money for multi-million dollar bonuses, while autoworkers and steelworkers are forced to slash pensions, health care and pay. A global disarmament effort has been launched, but the arms buildup at home continues without check.
And the big fights are only beginning. Big oil and coal are mobilizing to stop new energy. Agribusiness has already defeated efforts to cut back excessive subsidies. Health insurance and drug companies are arraying legions of lobbyists to dilute health care reforms.
In the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s first 100 days were stunning–but not enough. Much of the New Deal we remember–Social Security, labor rights, progressive taxation, banking regulation–all came late.
My own sense is that grading the president is not only premature, it is presumptuous. Much of what he can accomplish will be determined by what we, the people, demand and do. What we do know is that this president is serious and focused on meeting real challenges. We have a leader worthy of a great people. Now we must be a citizenry worthy of making him a great leader.