The Change Agent

By Dan Froomkin
12:15 PM ET, 04/29/2009

Obama in the Oval Office (AP photo)

He promised change, and boy has he delivered.

Looking back over the first 100 days of Barack Obama's presidency, one can't help but be awed by the tectonic shifts he has set in motion, even as he tries to steady a heaving economy.

It's all pretty much exactly what he said he would do, it's just that the scale is bigger than anyone anticipated. His startlingly bold and staggeringly large budget proposals reflect not a change in heart or a new agenda but a clear-eyed recognition of how dramatically off course the country was when he took over, and how thinking small just won't cut it.

His re-engagement with the international community, including a willingness to listen and treat others with respect -- even though we knew it was coming -- is just so different from what we've grown used to that it comes as a profound shock.

And consider that part of what is making the Obama presidency so big is the disproportionately large mess George W. Bush left for him to clean up. Part of what makes it seem so radical is the inevitable tension with a Washington establishment that was either actively or passively complicit in so many of the irresponsible policies that he is now trying to reverse. And part of what makes it so dramatic is that it's inevitably a wrenching process to go from one leader to another who is so diametrically his opposite.

Time and again, we are reminded of how profoundly different Obama is from Bush not just in his politics but in his background, his character, his vision -- and in terms of his thought processes, his cadences, his gut.

In some areas, however, there has been less change than many of us expected, and, as it happens, those are also the areas where Obama has put his presidency at greatest risk. There is no shortage of risk all around, of course. The stakes are enormous, the challenges are great, and there will be many political obstacles to overcome from both the opposition party's leadership and his own.

But it is in his bank bailout plan and his national security posture -- two places where he has seemed to focus more on continuity than on change -- that he may ultimately be the most vulnerable.

Obama's devotion to bailing out banks -- rather than, say, taking them over if they are de facto insolvent -- is tremendously unpopular with the American public as well as with the very economists who most support his policies otherwise. His financial rescue strategy in general has exposed him to charges that his top economic advisers have coopted him into being too soft on the very Wall Street players who caused this mess in the first place. As a result, an angry and well-founded populism perpetually seems just one outrage away.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, meanwhile, Obama has chosen to continue Bush's wars. And while he's done so with changed priorities, there is little sign that either war will end well. And in throwing out some of Bush's more extreme national-security measures (such as torture) but trying to keep others (such as an overly broad state secrets privilege) -- while at the same time insisting on no accountability for the extraordinary breaches of law and morality committed by the previous administration -- Obama risks alienating pretty much everybody.

So will Obama trip up in his next hundred days, or his next thousand? The obvious answer is yes. What's less clear is whether he will learn from his mistakes -- and how damaging they will be to his goals.

One thing he has going for him, however, is that his agenda is so enormous in scope -- his change of course so dramatic -- that even if only a somewhat reduced and modified vision of it actually comes to pass, that would still be a huge accomplishment.

For now, of course, the public is solidly behind him. Lydia Saad writes for Gallup: "As President Barack Obama concludes his first 100 days on the job, Gallup Poll Daily tracking for the week of April 20-26 finds 65% of Americans approving of how he is doing and only 29% disapproving. Obama's average weekly job ratings have varied only slightly thus far, ranging from 61% to 67%.

"The new president's approval rating at the 100-day mark is notable in that nearly all major demographic categories of Americans are pleased with his job performance, as evidenced by approval ratings above the majority level. Only in terms of political and ideological categories does Obama have a significant proportion of detractors; a majority of Republicans and self-described 'conservatives' disapprove of his job performance."

Here's a look at some of the judgments being reached on today's anniversary.

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "There has been nothing tentative about President Obama's first 100 days in office. The defining characteristics of his presidency have been his appetite for leadership, the breadth of his ambitions and his determination to pass his programs in the face of united Republican opposition.....

"He has set in motion so many initiatives -- domestic and international -- that his top advisers know that one of their biggest challenges will be to prevent the many pieces of his agenda from crashing into one another before they can be enacted and begin to work.

"For this fast start he has been rewarded with approval ratings that exceed those of his predecessors -- two in three Americans approve of the job he is doing -- and serious questions about the long-term implications of his multifront agenda."

Washington Post reporter Michael Shear says in a video roundtable: "One of the things that's striking to me is that you can pick any one of these things that President Obama did and, in another era, in another time, when things weren't as active as they were, any one of them might have been a huge story for us that would go on for weeks and weeks."

Scott Wilson writes in The Washington Post that the near-defeat of Obama's stimulus plan in February "has emerged as the seminal learning experience for Obama and his fledgling administration."

The biggest mistake, apparently, was the assumption "made by the president's senior advisers...that a fair number of Republican lawmakers would rally behind the nation's first African American president at a time of crisis, an assessment that proved wrong when only three GOP senators supported the stimulus measure and not a single House Republican followed suit.

"But Obama and his advisers corrected course quickly. Drawing conclusions from a post-mortem analysis that Emanuel conducted of the stimulus battle, senior White House advisers returned to the successful tactics of the presidential campaign, taking the president and his message beyond the Beltway and scaling back his appeals to congressional Republicans. The approach has defined the way he has governed since."

Gerald Seib writes in the Wall Street Journal that "if the first 100 days of President Obama's term have proved anything, it is that he is a hard man to classify. He has confounded, at one time or another, people at just about every spot across the political spectrum. He likes big and activist government, but he isn't a classic liberal. He is more of a social engineer than a guardian of the old welfare state.

"He's phenomenally popular among Democrats, but has found the most support for some of his foreign-policy moves among Republicans. He's pulling combat troops out of Iraq, but more slowly than he once promised -- and at the same time has laid plans to add more troops in Afghanistan than the Bush administration envisioned....

"He sometimes sounds like a protectionist, but so far has acted mostly like a free-trader. He talks a lot about fiscal discipline, yet is overseeing the nation's first trillion-dollar deficits. He's made history as America's first African-American president, yet probably talks less about race than did the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

Jim Rutenberg, Peter Baker and Bill Vlasic write in the New York Times that Obama's approach to the automobile industry crisis was a test of "the boundaries of his activist approach and the acuity of his political instincts. As with so many issues in his action-packed 100 days in office, Mr. Obama confronted choices few of his predecessors encountered. His ongoing intervention in an iconic sector of the economy offers a case study in the education, management and decision-making of a fledgling president."

Among their conclusions: "In terms of leadership style, Mr. Obama at times has seemed like a cross between his two most recent predecessors — intellectually curious, philosophically flexible and eager for input like Bill Clinton, while disciplined, willing to delegate and comfortable with bold decisions like George W. Bush.

"Unlike Mr. Bush, who preferred that his memos be kept to two pages, Mr. Obama has not trusted instinct during the auto-industry crisis so much as conduct a law school-style review of his options. Unlike Mr. Clinton, who was famous for making phone calls late at night without his aides knowing, Mr. Obama generally did not reach out independently to auto executives, union leaders or Congressional allies....

"As with his predecessors, strength at times can be weakness. Mr. Obama’s confidence has been a powerful asset at a time of national anxiety, even as close advisers acknowledge that it risks blinding him to the drawbacks of some decisions. In the end, Mr. Obama is gambling that his judgment is the right one to salvage an industry at the heart of America’s economic self-image."

Gideon Rose writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "After 100 days, it seems that President Obama is that rare creature, a responsible gambler. Bill Clinton took large risks personally but not as a policymaker. George W. Bush took lots of risks, but they were reckless and irresponsible ones. Obama is unlike either of his predecessors. Inheriting a dramatically reduced stack of chips, he finds himself with little choice but to bet heavily again and again -- but he is doing so with the odds rather than against them, taking sensible, calculated risks that may well pay off."

The USA Today editorial board writes: "Many crises, predictable and unpredictable, await Obama. At least for today, however, he can take comfort in knowing that he's so quickly and convincingly taken charge of the job that the novelty of his being the nation's first African-American president has largely faded. He's now simply the president, and surveys confirm that most Americans like the tone he has set. On balance, for a president entering office facing the tallest stack of problems in recent times, Obama is off to a promising start."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "Crises, not days, is the first word that comes to mind when we think about the number 100 and Barack Obama’s presidency.

"The list of failed policies and urgent threats bequeathed to him by former President George W. Bush could easily be that long. In his first 14 weeks plus two days, President Obama has made a strong start at addressing many of the most critical ones."

The Washington Post "surveyed an assortment of presidential historians, who arrived at the same conclusion: President Obama, in both the scope of his legislative achievements and the groundwork he has set for future policy changes, has done more in his first 100 days in the White House than any commander in chief since Franklin D. Roosevelt, who entered office in 1933 amid the throes of the nation's last major economic upheaval."

Walter Isaacson wrote: "History will judge that he has been astonishingly successful in his first 100 days. The stimulus package helped push major investment in education and health care and seems to have stemmed the collapse of our economy. His push for education reform is going to have a lasting impact on America's education system. The ability to open up and deal directly with adversaries around the world transforms the way we conduct foreign policy and could lead to important breakthroughs, whether in Cuba or Iran. And he has set a tone that is both open yet also persistent in pursuing his goals."

Ron Chernow wrote: "Across the board, he has signaled a willingness to rethink even deeply entrenched policies. There is a freshness and openness about this administration that is very engaging.... I think that he's been very fearless and not bound by old orthodoxies. I think that the speed with which he changed the policy on stem cell research shows how open he is to new ideas."

Salon asks 21 writers, politicians, activists and economists for their assessment of the Obama presidency so far. There are a lot of "A-" grades, though many give split decisions, like Robert Reich, who gives Obama's budget plan an "A" and his bank bailout an "F".

Michael Tomasky writes in a Guardian op-ed: "George Bush and Dick Cheney wanted an infantile citizenry. In fact they didn't really want citizens, in the sense in which the word is used in political philosophy, at all. Especially after 9/11, they wanted wards of the state....They wanted Americans to be fearful and to need daddy's protection....

"Obama wants people to be citizens. He wants them to play a role in shaping their own destiny. He's not trying to scare anybody. He couldn't anyway. That isn't his thing. He wants people to think. You can hear it in all his speeches – notably, to me, the mid-April Georgetown speech on the economy. He talks up to his audience and not down. He tries to clarify, but he does not try to simplify. He trusts that citizens can hold two concepts, even competing and contradictory ones, in their heads at one time.

"The numbers don't lie. The people, committed conservatives excepted, like being treated as adults for a change."

Time's Joe Klein also calls attention to that same speech: "The combination of candor and vision and the patient explanation of complex issues was Obama at his best — and more than any other moment of his first 100 days in office, it summed up the purpose of his presidency: a radical change of course not just from his predecessor, not just from the 30-year Reagan era but also from the quick-fix, sugar-rush, attention-deficit society of the postmodern age. The speech received ho-hum coverage on the evening news and in print — because, I suspect, it was more of a summation than the announcement of new initiatives. Quickly, public attention turned to new 'tempests of the moment' — an obscene amount of attention was paid to the new Obama family dog and then, more appropriately, to the Bush Administration's torture policy and the probably futile attempt to prosecute those who authorized the practices. And then to a handshake and a smile that the President bestowed on the Venezuelan demagogue Hugo Chávez. These are the soap bubbles of our public life. They have become the hasty, capricious, bite-size way that we experience the world. It has made for slovenly, sandy citizenship."

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