On Day 100, New Questions for Obama
By Dan Balz
President Obama is enjoying favorable reviews on this 100th day of his new administration. But those reviews ought to be tempered by what still isn't known about his presidency. So here are a few questions that remain to be answered.
Are his economic policies really working?
The economy remains in terrible shape, despite what the president has called the glimmers of hope. Today's report on first-quarter gross domestic product reminds everyone of how deep this recession is and how likely it is that the unemployment rate will continue to rise. Many banks are still in shaky condition. General Motors and Chrysler face possible bankruptcy and further shrinkage.
Will Obama need to ask for a second stimulus package, and if he does, will Congress go along?
The truth is that the administration doesn't know whether this will work. Obama has embraced FDR's "bold, persistent experimentation" as his motto for dealing with the economy. But just as the Bush administration acted last fall without knowing whether it's financial bailout would work, the economic stimulus package is an amalgam of spending and tax cuts without precedent. It represents the best judgment of Obama and his advisers, but whether it is big enough or too big isn't known.
How risky are the deficits that will come with the administration's combination of short-term stimulus and long-term initiatives for health care, energy and education?
Obama has insisted that he is serious about deficit reduction. One of his most senior advisers said the budget deliberations involved hard decisions for many of the agency officials, who wanted to spend even more than the president would allow. But those deliberations are mostly invisible. The budget Obama put forward envisions huge deficits far into the future and the Congressional Budget Office has even gloomier projections. Much obviously depends on the pace of economic recovery, but if Obama's forecasts prove too rosy, what will he do?
What is the president's real view about the size and role of government?
The Republicans have argued that the Obama agenda represents a dangerous return to big government. There's no question that he is using the power of the federal government in unprecedented ways. Not just by spending money but by intervening in the private economy to change corporate behavior (and leadership). Is this reflective of Obama's philosophy or merely a pragmatic reaction to the problems he has inherited? There is little to suggest that the public has a real appetite for a resurgence of big government. Whether Obama believes this is a necessary evil or the right way to do business over the long haul will be part of the political debate in 2010 and 2012.
How much is Obama prepared to raise taxes on the wealthy and, if Congress balks, what is his alternative?
Obama's agenda depends on finding more revenue and the administration has targeted those earning more than $250,000 a year. But Congress already objected to some of the proposals in his budget and Republicans will make taxes a central part of their argument that Obama is putting the economy at risk with his economic plan. It's not clear how far Obama would like to go or may need to go--and whether he will pay a political price for doing so.
In what ways will the president's health care plan force changes in the way Americans get their medicine and the health care industry dispenses it?
Nothing as big as the president has envisioned comes without some potentially wrenching changes and a big debate. Administration and congressional officials are at work on health care legislation, but there has yet to be anything close to a public airing of the details. Democrats may have the votes to pass whatever they want, now that Sen. Arlen Specter is on their side. But can the president actually expand coverage dramatically and lower the cost to individuals, as he said throughout the campaign?
What pain could be inflicted on consumers and corporations by the president's energy proposal?
Every president has tried and failed to do something big about the country's dependence on foreign oil. The goals of reducing the use of foreign oil and combating global climate change enjoy popular support, but at what cost? The president's desire to create a greener economy means government will be making economic choices that will reward some industries and punish others. Consumers will pay more. As with health care, the country's needs a big debate on this.
The president's foreign policy initiatives represent as much or more risk as his domestic proposals. As the release of the Justice Department memos on harsh interrogation techniques showed, there is not necessarily a consensus on all of his policies. His approval ratings now are highest on his decision to withdraw combat forces from Iraq and, interesting, to escalate U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. But much of Obama's foreign policy is still to be defined or executed.
Has the president set realistic goals in Afghanistan?
Defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban is a tall order. Obama appears to believe he has lowered expectations for his Afghanistan policy. He has not talked about creating a stable democracy so much as he's emphasized eliminating terrorist threats posed to the United States. But on what timetable and at what cost in lives and dollars? Whether this will prove to be the kind of quagmire that has frustrated other superpowers is the issue that hangs over his new policy.
Can he keep the lid on in Pakistan?
The dangers of a nuclear-armed Pakistan under the sway of Islamic extremists needs no explanation. Obama has assigned Richard Holbrooke, one of the country's toughest and most veteran diplomats, to this problem (and to Afghanistan). He will need to move quickly and creatively.
Does Obama have a realistic hope of changing the behavior of Iran's leaders?
The president hopes a combination of tentative engagement and tough action will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. How much different will his policies turn out to be from those of the Bush administration's and how urgently does the president see this threat (and possible action by the Israelis to eliminate that threat)?
Will the president's promise to engage more actively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict produce more progress than the Bush administration achieved?
The change in governments in Israel threatens to set back efforts to stimulate the peace process. Obama has yet to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take the new government's temperature. The president has put former Senate majority leader George Mitchell in charge of the Middle East brief, but will he engage personally and energetically or choose not to risk capital here.
Can the president create broad public support for his anti-terror policies?
The debate over interrogation techniques that was kicked off by the administration's release of the Justice Department memos was a reminder that Americans remain divided on these issues, as they balance concerns about the safety of the country and maintenance of civil liberties and democratic values. Obama may have hoped to turn the page on the Bush policies, but it's likely he will have to keep reasserting his position in order to bring more of the country to his side. He faces similar problems on his decision to close the detainment center at Guantanamo Bay. While many applaud the decision, finding new homes for some of the terrorist suspects presents hard choices for Obama and his team.
How much will Obama's foreign policies really differ from those of former President Bush?
In style, Obama has offered a different face to the world. He also has made good on his pledge to end the war in Iraq. Ending harsh interrogations is another break from Bush. But on North Korea, Iran, the Middle East and other parts of the world, it's not clear how much he will differ. Nor can he be sure that his professed willingness to listen to other nations will bring about different behavior. It was widely noted on his foreign trip that other leaders (and their constituents) welcomed him warmly, but he made little immediate progress in winning commitments for more NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The Obama White House is understandably enjoying the reviews of the president's first 100 days. But more than with many presidents, these months are merely a prelude to more consequential days ahead.
April 29, 2009; 12:45 PM ET
Categories: Dan Balz's Take
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