Saturday, March 28, 2009

Instant Revisionism: Is Obama's First 60 Days Really That Bad?

This week, The Economist - one of the international financial papers that backed Obama - produced an editorial essentially claiming buyer's remorse: that Obama's first 60 days had been a disappointment and had made them reconsider the reasons they endorsed him. While Obama has been harpooned constantly by the far right, the editorial needs to be taken seriously, as the change of heart shown by The Economist suggests that Obama's support amongst his middle-right champions may be seriously eroding - and thus eroding Obama's promise of forging a new style bipartisan politics.

There are certainly some things that team O can be doing better, but I want to look at the claims The Economist have made and ask if they are really as serious as they make them out to be, and if after only a mere 60 days, center-right supporters should start fleeing the Obama ship.

Perhaps most serious charge The Economist makes is lack of experience - that Obama has shown to be inept and is learning on the job, contributing to his slide in approval. In essence, they are criticizing Obama's leadership ability (he's been "messed around" by his own party and they exhort him to "lead, damnit.") They support their claims of lack of leadership by citing these supposed failures:

1. He subcontracted the stimulus to Congress and did a "mediocre" job on it, as most of it won't kick in for several years.
2. There are still 23 open slots at Treasuring showing a "lack of focus" on the economy and "administrative drift"
3. His stimulus "broke down" in Congress because it only got the support of three Republican senators.

But have other Presidents done better in their first 60 days? In his first 100 days, Clinton created an uproar over allowing gays to serve in the military, failed to get his stimulus bill passed, butted heads with Congressional Democrats who seemed to want to paint him as inexperienced, and put his wife in charge of his big initiative - health care reform - which eventually was killed without a single bill enacted. He also created a huge scandal with the White House travel office that dominated the airwaves for weeks.

Just one month after Gerald Ford took office, he pardoned Nixon, created a rift with Congressional Democrats, and never recovered to enact any significant legislation.

W. Bush had to grapple with continued protests and suspicions about the election, had no mandate, and the press was more focused on Clinton than anything Bush might have wanted to do in his first term. On average, Bush's appointments weren't confirmed until EIGHT MONTHS after his election (compared with two and a half for Kennedy).

George HW Bush was criticized for having "no agenda," received complaints about his capitol gains tax cuts, and was compared unfavorably to Ronald Reagan by his own party.

What about Ronald Reagan? His tax cuts received heated opposition and a huge uproar in Congress. Then two months into his term there was an attempt on his life: that created a surge in popularity, and his tax cut legalisation went through.

Obama's approval rating now stands at 62%. The only President since Kennedy with a significantly higher approval rating after 100 days was Reagan, who had an approval of 68% after a hundred days and the attempt on his life.

And yet, let's look at what Obama has done in a mere sixty days. He's drafted and passed the largest stimulus package ever created, and he was able to put together a package filled with more tax cuts than Democrats wanted, and attracted enough Republicans for them to pass it easily while still claiming deniability. He filled his cabinet faster than any President in recent history. He's dealt with an unprecedented financial catastrophe that no President has faced since FDR. The actions taken by Treasury and the Fed in a mere two and a half-months have stabilized the stock market (the market has risen by 20% since it's bottom in February) and have produced the first positive economic indicators after more than a year of continual and steep economic deterioration.

That's not to say that there aren't some things that Obama could do better. His experience in Congress has obviously taught him that deference and favors are the way that legislation gets passed - and he's put expediency of legislation ahead of political perception - but now that the stimulus is in gear, he does need to be more politically savvy about signaling to the public that he's the one leading Congress, and not the other way around. Letting Congress strip his cap-and-trade and middle-class tax provisions without any push back was a mistake that - even if he is looking for a way out of these promises - signals exactly the wrong message to the public (his press conference gave him ample opportunity to play this differently). He was successful in his initial baiting of recalcitrant Republicans, which help to shore up his early popularity, but now he's let the worries about the deficit get ahead of perceptions of his budget plans, and old suspicions about his far-left economics have resurfaced. And perhaps most damaging, the policy wonks in his cabinet have failed to put forth truly bold agendas - nationalizing banks in order to quickly disassemble them without the need for huge risky bailouts, touting a healthcare plan that cuts back on entitlements at the same time that it attempts to extend care, fighting for a comprehensive energy plan as part of his budget. In other words, while his early popularity was achieved by convincing people he was a left-leaning moderate who would bring establishment players into his team, his problem now seems to be that his team is coming up with policy that is TOO much a part of the left establishment and doesn't break out of mold radically or dramatically enough to deliver the change Obama's supporters are hoping for.

But it hasn't even been 100 days yet, and Obama has had his hands full just keeping the economy from tanking. Perhaps much of the credit for stabilizing the economy needs to go to the idea that Obama has been able to reassure vested interests and economic players that not too much is going to change. In terms of calculating between long-term perception and immediate need, Obama, a smart political player, has clearly identified that first things must be done first, and there will be plenty of time for radical change later.

In other words, I think that all of us who would like to now claim aha! Obama has been rocky, successful, hesitant, or whatever, just need to step back and realize how little time has gone by. Sixty days into Bush's Presidency, we would have thought it would have been completely uneventful. Sixty days into Clinton's, we would have thought it would have been completely incompetent. And if Reagan hadn't been shot, he might have ended up being considered nothing more than a retired actor with a radical idea of redistributing wealth to the wealthy.

Obama perhaps needs to step back and re-tune his message. And he needs to re-look at the effect of his budget on the long-term health of the country, particularly regarding entitlements and energy reform. But in a mere sixty days, in terms of the most pressing issue at hand - the economy - he's already achieved a great deal. If this downturn starts to turn around before 2010, which would be much earlier than anyone could have reasonably expected a few weeks ago, we may be hailing him as a hero.

1 comment:

Alexandra said...

Thank you for putting some perspective on Obama's start: the Economist is criticizing the "slow" rate of high-level appointments, when both Clinton and Bush were well towards the end of the first year before making significant progress on this front. Also, as you point out, the speed and relative success of his initiatives has been excellent so far.