Steady in Tough Times

by Andrew Sullivan


It seems much longer than a hundred days to me. In fact, it feels quite natural now, almost part of the furniture. The thrilling change many of us campaigned for felt most intense and promising this time last year, and once the possibility of a president Obama loomed into view last fall, the thrill dissipated a little. It has certainly seemed that way watching him since he took office: he has talked less hope than sobriety. He has become an anchor of sorts, not a kite.

What has surprised me? Not much. I'm surprised by Michelle Obama's public relations success. I'm surprised by the total refusal of the Republicans to cooperate. I was surprised by the one obvious disastrous decision -- to hype Tim Geithner's first bank plan when he didn't yet have one. Other than that, Obama's first hundred days have seemed as predictable as his disciplined campaign. His instinctive small-c conservatism has led him not to reject the Bush legacy entirely, but to try, wherever he can, to make it work. Hence his attempt to rescue the fast-collapsing war in Afghanstan, and his postponement of real withdrawal from Iraq until next year. I worry that both decisions are the wrong ones -- that Afghanistan is hopeless and Pakistan worse; and that the lull in Iraq is the eye of a storm -- the one time when U.S. withdrawal might be feasible. But Obama's caution leads him in a less radical direction. And we will find out in time whether caution was merited.

The same might be said for his stimulus package and budget proposal. Both were adequate but not ground-shaking. The stimulus may well secure healthcare reform this year and prevent the recession's bottom from becoming an abyss: Not bad, but not exactly revolutionary. The budget's failure to grapple with long-term debt is equally unsurprising in a demand downdraft -- and it's no deep solution to the fiscal hole either. And since the revenues from cap and trade now look very iffy, and the growth projections for even this year look off by a mile, we're treading water, not forging ahead. In retrospect, deciding not to put the banks into swift receivership - assuming that was legally and politically an option - will probably prove to have been his most important move. Again, I cannot know if this was shrewd strategy or a missed opportunity. But it was a big decision, and Obama opted for the conservative option.

The clearest breaks with the Bush legacy have been, as expected, in foreign policy -- and all of them welcome. There have been no sudden moves, but a real and profound shift in America's attitude to the rest of the world. There is engagement and diplomacy, not grandstanding and war. The way Obama defused Chavez by actually shaking his hand was very deft. The outreach to the Iranian people through the media has helped scramble the Iranian elections and put more pressure on Ahmadinejad than Cheney ever could. The European tour was criticized for being short on substantive concessions, but I think that misses the point. Obama is laying a new groundwork for future action. The test will be how he grapples with Iraq withdrawal, and with Israel's determination to provoke an armed conflict with Iran. And neither challenge will be easy.

Has he said "goodbye to all that" with respect to the culture war, as I hoped a year and a half ago? I'd say an emphatic Yes. While the Republicans have responded to his emergence in ways that entrench their commitment to ideology and the red-blue split, Obama has somehow managed not to press the buttons they want. Americans greeted the "socialist" moniker by ramping up their disapproval of Republicans, not Obama. They see the merits of the stimulus package -- and even the kinder, gentler approach to resuscitating the banking sector -- along the same pragmatic lines Obama does. Moreover, without Obama, it's hard to see any administration, Democratic or Republican, being able to rescue the financial sector while managing the gales of populist anger out there.

The trust people still have in him is real. And he has tended to it well. His obvious reluctance to initiate criminal prosecutions for the war crimes of the Bush-Cheney era speaks to this desire to be president of all Americans and to avoid divisive and damaging battles. But the rule of law remains. It's hard to see how Holder can resist proscuting obvious violations of the law on torture and mistreatment of prisoners. Nonetheless, Obama has shown he understands his office: to preside, not to prosecute.

My sense is that this is a subtle and auspicious start. He has built trust; he has restored a tone of responsibility; he has shown a new American face to the world; he has ended the torture program; although it may not be enough, he has done the minimum necessary to prevent a truly epochal depression; he has put science before ideology; and he has demonstrated outreach to his opponents. And he has done it with a real degree of grace and eloquence and sincerity that have rendered him more personally popular today than ever before.

We have an adult in charge. And we have civil public reasoning back in a persuasive president. Even with the fetid and somewhat desperate attempts of the far right to bring him down so soon, he dominates the stage right now. Because Obama's game is always a long one, a hundred days seems too soon to judge. But the ground has been laid. For what? We'll find out.

Comments (4)

Andrew,

I definitely subscribe to your opinions. These 100 days are hallmark of Obama giving a message loud & clear; the rules of game have changed & so should the game be. He is bringing new air to Washington (good or bad) and we don't need to be an expert to see where he is heading. There have been things he hasn't done, or hasn't done right but none of us can doubt his intentions & lets judge him on that, results will follow.

Surely, it may be another 100-200-300 days before we can measure him on a success parameter, at the moment we can safely assure him a benefit of doubt for the ground he is setting. Rest is Time.

Good analysis.

I completely agree with you about Obama's approach to focusing on the long-term instead of the short-term, which is why the 100 day benchmark has to be viewed in relation to just one of many future milestones that all add up to something much bigger.

Regarding the G20 summit in London, there was indeed a lot of chatter about what Obama actually did accomplish beside making some nice speeches and helping to increase funds to the IMF. Not surprisingly, most overlooked the finer details where Obama was setting the foundation with world leaders by establishing early, critical relationships. These meetings are important to help shape the bigger, long-term goals with foreign nations.

As for the American economy, critical steps have been taken by the Obama administration, but we probably won't know the full affects until at least six to ten months from now... so I guess we all have to stay tuned for that.

Andrew, you've punted on the stimulus package and the budget. What happened to your fiscal conservatism? The new budget guarantees half-trillion dollar deficits for the foreseeable future, the treasury is printing dollars at the speed of light, and all during a time when our GDP appears to be shrinking?
We need you to start speaking out about this. Your cowardly abdication of responsibility by pleading that you are not an economist is unacceptable. You can do arithmetic. Stop shilling for this administration. I know you're a fiscal conservative - now act like one, and stop being a mouthpiece for Obama.

Patrick, try to keep up. Andrew has already had his say on Obama's fiscal wrecklessnees. You see, its all Bush's fault and two wrongs always make a right.