Salon Roundtable: He will inherit the kind of problems that few new presidents have had to face. Where should he start?





Whenever a new president is preparing to take office, talk turns to the vaunted first 100 days. Barack Obama's historic presidential run generated a level of excitement in Washington and across the country not witnessed in a long time. With the election won, the buzz continues, but the focus is now on the possibilities and perils of the opening moments of his administration. Obama will be taking the helm of a country facing a long, daunting list of problems. With many observers citing historical analogs like Abraham Lincoln in 1861 or Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, in this Salon round table we explore a twofold question with sobering implications: What can Obama accomplish in his first 100 days, and what should he attempt?

Three experts share their opinions about what is likely to happen after Obama takes the oath of office. Steve Clemons is a senior fellow and director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute. Clemons, who blogs at the Washington Note, previously served as executive vice president of the Economic Strategy Institute and senior policy advisor to Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. Rick Perlstein is author of two acclaimed books on the ascendancy of the conservative movement: "Nixonland," and "Before the Storm," on Barry Goldwater and the 1964 election. Perlstein is now senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future, for whom he writes the blog the Big Con. Winnie Stachelberg is senior vice president for external affairs at the Center for American Progress. Prior to joining CAP, she spent 11 years working as the political director of the Human Rights Campaign and vice president of the HRC Foundation. Winnie is a former staffer at the Office of Management and Budget in both the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. Salon spoke to Clemons, Perlstein and Stachelberg by phone.

Tom Schaller: There have been many post-election comparisons of the present moment to the start of presidencies ranging from Lincoln's to FDR's to Reagan's. Before we get to Obama and what he should do in his first 100 days, I want to ask how appropriate and relevant the very concept of a president's first 100 days is in the 21st century? Rick, you've written about this recently, so I'll start this first question with you.

Rick Perlstein: Of course, like a lot of things in history that seem like they've been with us forever, it's a recent convention. Basically it happened during the crisis of 1932 and '33 when Franklin Roosevelt was elected in November, but wasn't inaugurated until March. He had a very long time to basically work up a plan for what he was going to do to rescue the economy, during which period thousands of banks were failing. So the idea that he would just hit the ground running was very much a part of how he identified his administration. He did something very new, which is the idea that a president goes into office with a package of legislation that he's trying to pass and that you can judge his performance on how well he does in passing that. Prior to that point, basically the congressional leaders would tell presidents what the legislative agenda would be rather than the other way around.

Schaller: I'm wondering, Steve and Winnie, is this 100 day thing just a convenient rule the media relies on? Does it really have to be literally 100 days?

Winnie Stachelberg: To be honest, I think there's some truth to it and some fiction to it. It's a nice catchphrase to talk about -- a quick, out-of-the-box push for something. But I really think 100 days is in the eyes of the beholder. It could be all the way up until the August recess. But a lot of people think that if stuff got done in that period it might be considered the first 100 days. I want to go back to a point that was made, which is that a lot of what's on President-elect Obama's plate is stuff that he's already working on and that his transition team is working on with Congress. And so, there is a sense that much will get done in a first stretch of time, whether that's three months or six months. Because a lot of these conversations have happened and a lot of the policy has been shared between elected officials.

Clemons: I have a slightly different perspective. Number one, history happens faster now than it did in other presidencies. Secondly, it's hard to imagine a worse national security and economic portfolio handoff than what we're seeing to Obama now. I think we can't do with the kind of continuity of approach that we saw in the past. This is an FDR moment. The situation for America's global position and its domestic economic position is really horrible. So, whether 100 days is exactly the right benchmark or not, the notion -- you know, Jim Steinberg and Kurt Campbell [say] that Obama needs to go slowly on foreign policy. And I think that's absolutely wrongheaded. We need to see big strategic moves, positions set by Obama, and he needs to benchmark those against the past of incrementalism, a past of continuity, and tell Americans things are going to be different tomorrow. He's got a very short window to make the Obama bubble mean something before it explodes....

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