Chris Weigant: Obama's First 94 Days
[Weigant is a journalist.]
I admit, I am getting the jump on the rest of the media here, by writing my "First 100 Days" article six days early (some would say five days early, but they would be wrong). I have jumped this particular gun already, I should point out, having already written one article (after Obama's first week in office) entitled "Obama's First 168 Hours." So today we are going to pre-empt the usual Friday Talking Points article this week with a special edition on President Obama's "First 100 Days," since everyone will be talking about it starting this weekend.
Originally, I thought about breaking Obama's achievements down into: "The Good," "The Bad," and "The Ugly," because it's so catchy (it's almost like they should name a movie that, or something). But upon further reflection, this doesn't adequately cover the material, and so instead we will use the categories: "The Good," "The Bad," and "The Monumentally Stupid (Media)." After a short overview, we'll get to the individual categories.
Also, I should note for those who may have missed it, that I just wrote a two-part retrospective of the past six presidents and how their 100 days was rated by the media (with extensive excerpts from contemporary sources). Part 1 examined Ford, Carter, and Reagan, and Part 2 reviewed (HW) Bush, Clinton, and (W) Bush.
Obama's First 94 Days — An Overview
President Obama has faced multiple crises in his first few months in office, from an economic meltdown he inherited from George W. Bush to pirates on the high seas. Obama has performed adequately well in all of them. This is not to say I agree with everything he's done, but there have been no disastrous episodes during this period. The 100 days arbitrary measuring stick didn't originate with F.D.R., but rather with Napoleon and Waterloo, and Obama simply has not had a "Waterloo" incident yet. Much to the consternation of Republicans, I might add.
There has been an underlying and simmering populist angst in America during this period, as taxpayers watch Wall Street get bailed out with not much in the way of strings attached to the money. But, as the low turnout at the "Tea Party" protests on tax day showed, this isn't exactly hurting Obama yet. If it truly does crest into a wave of anger, it could bode ill in the future, but for now most Americans trust Obama to at least attempt to do the right thing.
This is shown by his poll numbers, which have not budged during his entire 100 days in office. There has been a little fluctuation at the margins, but two-thirds of the country approves of Obama's job performance so far, while one-third do not. Which is exactly the same proportion as when he took office. Partly, this is the "honeymoon" period with the public, but it is still an impressive measure of how well-liked Obama is in the country, even after people have seen him actually govern (rather than just campaign). I've written about Obama's polls and what they mean previously, but it bears remembering that during his entire 100 day period, the American people have given him a consistently high level of support and approval.
Obama has been moving Washington at warp speed. He is doing things so furiously fast that his opponents and the media are quite simply having a hard time keeping up with him. This is seldom admitted, but I'd like to point out one quote from Meet The Press, where Ron Brownstein of the National Journal was talking about Obama's success with his stimulus package:
"Yeah, I think it's really kind of silly to compare the victory of the week and the bumps of the week. I mean, as Gene said, the magnitude of the — this bill was a presidency in a box. He achieved more of his aims in this single legislation than many presidents will achieve in an entire term. I mean, there is more new net public investment here on things the Democrats consider essential for long-term growth — like education, scientific research, alternative energy — than Bill Clinton was able to achieve in two terms. And there are — I mean, there are other aspects of this, as well. If you go back to 1993 — first of all, Bill Clinton didn't pass his economic plan till August, Ronald Reagan until the end of July. When Clinton's plan passed, 41 House Democrats voted against it, and six Senate Democrats. So the other side of the Republican unity against this was the incredible Democratic unity for it. Only seven House Democrats, no Senate Democrats voting against it. What we're seeing here I think in party by — in this House — the difficulty you talk about in winning Republicans is a fundamental long-term change in our political system. Both parties are more unified than they were a generation ago. And I think in some ways this is a wake-up call for Obama that there is a limited number of Republicans who have electoral or ideological incentives to work for him, and he may have to try to build a broader definition of what it means to have an inclusive and bipartisan presidency."
I quote this because it was a rare instance of the media actually admitting the truth — that Obama simply is not following the storyline that they have laid down for him. To their great consternation. I think they're afraid if they just came out and admitted that Obama is still just as popular as when he took office, their ratings would go down or something. It's hard to figure out what they're thinking, actually.
Anyway, the overview of Obama's term thus far is that he has tackled an extraordinary amount of issues, gotten Congress to pass bills extraordinarily fast, because he is facing an extraordinary set of problems. And he has done so without "spending political capital" (as the media defines the term), since he has kept the trust and approval of two-thirds of the public throughout this period. Which is about ten percent higher than the percentage of people who voted for him.
But let's examine, in laundry list format, the actual good things Obama has done, the bad things he's done, and the inane babbling of the media while he was doing so.
Obama's inaugural speech was very good.
In his first week, Obama:
- Ordered plans to withdraw combat forces from Iraq.
- Froze the pay of White House staff earning more than $100,000 a year.
- Restricted lobbying by officials who leave the administration.
- Broadened compliance with open-records rules and lifted Bush's restrictions on the release of presidential records.
- Froze all proposed federal rule changes left unfinished by the Bush administration. They relate to the Endangered Species Act, labor relations and other fields.
- Ordered the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within one year.
- Tightened limits on interrogation tactics by Central Intelligence Agency officers.
- Removed financing restrictions on groups that provide or discuss abortion overseas.
- Instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider whether to grant California a waiver to regulate automobile tailpipe emissions linked to global warming.
- Ordered the Transportation Department to issue guidelines that will ensure that the nation's auto fleet reaches an average fuel efficiency of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, if not earlier.
Not bad for a first week. Throughout the next few months, Obama will continue to overturn many of the Bush policies that are easily changed with a stroke of the presidential pen in just such a fashion.
Obama signs Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which restores a woman's right to sue for unequal pay when she finds out about it (fixes a disastrous Supreme Court decision).
Obama signs SCHIP legislation which will give millions of children access to health insurance.
Throughout the entire 100 days, Obama uses the bully pulpit in masterful fashion, leading to the inevitable comparisons with "The Great Communicator" himself, Ronald Reagan (the Wall Street Journal even used the phrase "Great Communicator II" in a headline).
Obama, when doing so, speaks to the American people as adults — meaning both that he refuses to "dumb down" his sentences, and also that he levels with the people instead of only offering them happy talk (as most politicians are wont to do). This is part of the reason people continue to trust him.
Obama's appearances on such varied outlets as ESPN (where he picked his March Madness teams) and Jay Leno (first time a sitting president has appeared on a late-night talk show) show he knows how to get his message out to people in all walks of life, who may not pay any attention to news shows.
Obama got something like 80-90 percent of what he asked for in his stimulus package through Congress. While the media was focusing on trivial amounts of the package, the lion's share made it through the congressional meatgrinder virtually untouched, even with a stiff headwind from Republicans. This stimulus package was passed not just in "record time" but almost "at the speed of light" compared to Washington-as-usual. This is the single most impressive legislative victory Obama has achieved yet, but is only a small fraction of Obama's agenda.
Obama fulfills a campaign promise to "cut taxes for 95 percent of American workers" in his stimulus package — something apparently not noticed later by the "Tea Party" protesters.
In one of Obama's first refusals to play the media's game, Obama appears bipartisan by "reaching his hand out" to the Republicans in both the House and Senate, only to have his hand slapped rudely away. The media try to pin this failure on Obama, but the public does not buy it and polls show they have pinned this failure where it belongs — on the Republican Party. Obama knows, as the media apparently does not, that the appearance of bipartisanship is much more important than an actual bipartisan vote count on any one bill. This will pay off dividends for Obama in the future, in my opinion, during more contentious debates in Congress.
Obama knows he has a mandate from the people, and he knows how to use it. He hasn't yet held his own popularity as a threat over recalcitrant congressfolk (at least not publicly) in sword-of-Damocles fashion, but his coattails of popularity with the public are rightly seen by almost all Democrats on the Hill as worth attaching themselves to. Obama (for now at least) has the people on his side, and congressional Democrats have been extraordinarily cohesive behind their party leader as a result. We haven't seen a whole lot of "herding cats" stories about Democrats — which is astounding in and of itself.
Obama has used his "honeymoon period" to actually get a lot of things done. This is very important, because conventional wisdom in Washington is that the first 100 days of a president's term is the most opportune time in his whole term to act. Next year the focus will be on midterm elections, and then the second half of his term will be filled with re-election talk. So now is the best time to act (so the conventional wisdom goes) and Obama knows this and has used it to his advantage.
Obama's "Non-State-Of-The-Union" State Of The Union speech was extremely good.
Obama's announced plan to withdraw American forces from Iraq was pretty close to what he promised on the campaign trail. To be honest, however, George Bush deserves most of the credit for this, since he agreed to the main timetable for withdrawal (the Status Of Forces Agreement) before Obama took office.
Obama signed last year's budget, which passed through Congress virtually in the blink of an eye, and rightfully ignored the media's tantrum about earmarks.
Obama's administration has been very successful politically at making the face of the Republican Party into a few folks the public can't stand: Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, and Dick Cheney. This will only serve to further weaken the Republicans, as the midterm elections get closer.
Obama, on a number of issues, outlines his ideas and goals, and then leaves it to Congress to fill in the details. This insulates him from criticism over any one of those details. While some may see it as political cowardice, so far it has worked well for Obama.
Obama's speed has been criticized, but the upshot of moving so fast is that both the media and the Republicans simply do not have enough time to react before Obama throws something else at them. There isn't enough time to work up a good outrage, before Obama is on to the next subject. This dilution of the opposition means he is able to get a lot more things accomplished as a result.
In Obama's second prime-time press conference, he threw down a gauntlet for the Republicans — "put up or shut up" on the budget. This led to an enormously embarassing stumble, when they reacted by putting out a budget proposal with no actual numbers (which the media mercilessly ridiculed them for). This led one Democrat to say: "After 27 days, the best House Republicans could come up with is a 19-page pamphlet that does not include a single real budget proposal or estimate. There are more numbers in my last sentence than there are in the entire House GOP 'budget.' "
Obama's Attorney General announced a new policy on medical marijuana raids by the federal government — which should end them for people who are following relevant state laws.
Obama takes questions from the public in an online event (that wasn't really advertised well enough, but perhaps he'll improve on this in future events). In it, he overruled his moderator and actually addressed a question about marijuana (which had been getting enormous online support). The answer he gave will be discussed in the "Bad" section next, but the fact is Obama didn't have to even take the question in the first place, and I give him credit for doing so.
Obama strongly comes out for science-based governmental decisions, over ideology. This has led to (among other things) the recent announcement that Plan B will be available to 17-year old women.
Obama invites gay families to his Easter Egg Roll event, and distributes other tickets online (for the first time) to the general public.
Obama fulfills another campaign promise when he announces he will be sending more troops to Afghanistan.
Obama's health care plan could actually pass this year, because Congress is apparently going to put it on a "fast track" — meaning Senate Republicans will not be able to filibuster it.
Obama has gone a long way towards reclaiming the word "values" for Democrats. This is a subtle thing, but could pay dividends for all Democrats in the future.
In his first trip to Europe, Obama did well — but then really all he had to say was "I'm not Bush" and they still would have cheered him.
Obama did the right thing in the standoff with the Somali pirates — he gave the military their orders, and then stood back and let them do their job. Some may say "Obama got lucky" on this one, since it could have turned out much differently (if the hostage had been killed, for instance), but because it did turn out so well, it has to be chalked up in the "Good" column for Obama.
Obama releases the Bush Torture Memos, almost without redactions. He could have chosen many other routes, but instead chose openness and transparency (two themes with him).
Obama's most recent issue could turn out to be his most popular — taking on the credit card companies. This issue resonates with the public more than just about any other issue, and it could be Obama's key to attracting some populist support himself.
Obama changes fifty years of Cuba policy, in his spare time, and puts us on a course to get rid of the last vestige of the Cold War once and for all. My response to the media's response to this was an imagined headline which could fit many situations: "Obama Does Exactly What He Said He Would Do — Media Stunned."
Obama's wife, First Lady Michelle, has continued to charm just about everyone from the American public to the Queen of England during her husband's first 100 days. Her grace and style are a perfect fit with her husband, and her White House gardening efforts with local D.C. schoolchildren are simply adorable.
And finally, the last thing on the list for Barack Obama's achievements during his first 100 days — Bo Obama, our new First Dog, whom everyone loves (even the media).
Obama got off on a minor wrong foot with the left by inviting Rick Warren to give the invocation at his Inauguration.
Obama's cabinet nominees have had their problems, with taxes and other issues, but pretty much every president has some minor stumbles when putting together their cabinets and getting them confirmed by the Senate.
Obama's plan to close Guantanamo was not fast enough for some, and was criticized as a result.
Obama is (at best) a reluctant populist, as evidenced by his weak stance on curbing executive pay for Wall Street "bailout babies," and as evidenced by his economic team (Geithner and Summers, chiefly, who are seen as too close to Wall Street themselves).
Obama has raised taxes on a segment of the population, some of whom are quite poor — cigarette smokers. Federal taxes on a pack of smokes tripled, to pay for SCHIP.
Obama's worst trait seems to be a reluctance to change the Bush stance on "state secrets" or "national security" in various court cases. The Obama administration is taking virtually the same position as Bush did, which is a worrying sign for the future.
Obama is also reluctant (at best) on any sort of accountability for any of the wrongs of the Bush administration, as evidenced most recently by Obama having to be dragged into the debate over a Truth Commission, rather than leading on the issue. This may be smart politics, but it is enraging a certain segment of the population that wants to know definitively what was done in their name.
Obama appears reluctant (although his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, may be doing this outside the klieg lights of the media) to champion his own initiatives in Congress, preferring to stand on the sidelines and not get involved with the details. Most recently, Obama was virtually silent on the debate to "fast track" health care legislation (to give the Senate filibuster-proof votes on the issue).
Obama's Iraq withdrawal plan was not fast enough for a lot of anti-war people who voted for him. But, as I mentioned in the "Good" section, most of the blame or credit for this belongs to Bush, who agreed to the SOFA with Maliki.
Obama signed last year's budget with a bunch of earmarks. Now, it's not like he ever made a campaign promise to veto all earmarks (the media somehow confused Obama for McCain during their reporting), but it didn't sit well with some budget-cutters.
Obama is a bit reluctant to detail what his health care proposal should actually have in it, once again leaving it for congressional Democrats to haggle over the details rather than championing any of them himself.
Although Obama did take the question about marijuana, he laughed it off and refused to give an honest answer to the question or indeed the entire issue. This didn't sit well with the left.
Even after the Attorney General said medical marijuana raids would stop, there have indeed been raids in California — a worrying sign that the DEA hasn't quite gotten the message yet.
Obama has been mostly silent on the Employee Free Choice Act, which the unions are strongly in favor of. Obama risks softening his union support by not getting out in front of the issue.
Even though he promised it on the campaign trail, some of Obama's supporters are denouncing his plan to move more troops into Afghanistan.
Obama made one very stupid joke on his appearance on Jay Leno — when he likened his bowling efforts to the "Special Olympics." He apologized immediately, but he never should have said it in the first place.
Obama's energy proposal, because it was not "fast-tracked" in the budget agreement, may in fact have no chances of passing Congress this year.
Obama, even though he is currently getting in front of the credit card issue, is actually weaker on it than Senate Democrats, Chris Dodd in particular. This is a chance for Obama to be bold, but again, he appears a bit reluctant to do so.
And finally, Obama is also reluctant to investigate the Bush Torture Memos, and torture in particular. Once again, he prefers others to get out in front and take the heat, and remains mostly aloof on the issue. This could change in the next few days or weeks, though.
The Monumentally Stupid (Media)
Here is just a quick list of the silly, ridiculous, and downright idiotic things the media has been talking about during Obama's first 100 days. This is just a partial list, mind you, just the ones I noticed.
The media started their inane horse manure literally from Day One. I was at Obama's Inauguration. Here is what I wrote about the kerfluffle over Aretha Franklin's hat at the time:
What is it with all the hat-haters out there? The first thing I noticed was her hat. I turned to my wife and said, "That's some hat!" And now I find out people are making fun of the hat? Get a grip, people. Her hat was fabulous (to get all fashion-y here), and although most women couldn't have worn it without looking at least a little bit silly, Aretha Franklin pulled it off without a hitch. Her hat's statement was: "I am Aretha Franklin's hat, and you better get used to me — because she looks better wearing me than any woman in Washington since Jacqueline Kennedy and her pillboxes. You got a problem with that?" Her hat spoke to me, in other words. Anyone who didn't hear this message just wasn't listening hard enough.
Obama's Inaugural speech proves he is a secret conservative.
Obama somehow isn't our president because Chief Justice Roberts was too vain to read the text off a piece of paper, and botched the oath.
Obama was elected to bring "bipartisanship" to Washington, not to actually get anything done. The American people are crying out for his failure to change Washington overnight.
On his stimulus package (grass for the National Mall) and on last year's budget (earmarks), the media shows it cannot do simple math (i.e. the difference between "million" and "billion). However, when Obama proposed cutting government budgets by $100,000,000, suddenly they whip out math which shows why this is such a small amount.
Obama is too negative, he should be more upbeat.
Obama is too upbeat, he should be more negative.
Obama isn't getting his message out.
Obama is dangerously overexposed in the media (he's getting his message out too well, in other words).
When Obama got his stimulus package passed in record time, it was somehow a "failure" because the Republicans wouldn't vote for it. This was, to the media, quite obviously Obama's fault somehow.
Obama should keep John McCain's campaign promises on earmarks, and if he doesn't, he has "gone against campaign promises made." This is so ridiculous it still stuns me just to think about it.
Rick Santelli is somehow channeling "populist rage" among millionaire stock brokers. Nobody in the media owns a dictionary, apparently.
"Spending political capital" to pass wildly popular laws somehow leaves you weaker politically, and Obama is in danger of "spending too much political capital," even though his poll numbers haven't budged an inch.
Getting last year's budget passed in record time was also a severe "defeat" for Obama, because those pesky Republicans didn't vote for it, which was (of course) Obama's fault. Here is what I wrote about this at the time:
I have been simply stunned this week at the way the media has been covering the passage of the 2009 omnibus budget bill, and of President Obama's signing the bill into law. If I knew nothing about the subject but what I've seen on network news shows (not even cable, mind you, just the "respected" nightly news shows), then I would believe the following about the 2009 budget: (1) most of it — say a good 70 to 80 percent — was earmarks, (2) those dastardly Democrats put all the earmarks in, and Republicans fought and fought for fiscal responsibility, but couldn't remove them in the end, because (3) there was no bipartisanship at all in passing this bill, (4) passing this bill in the midst of the flood of other important legislation was really no big deal, happens all the time, and (5) President Obama broke a big campaign pledge he made to veto every earmark and signed the bill anyway, thus disappointing the American public by breaking his word.
None of these things, I must point out, is even remotely true. But that's the spin that I get from Brian Williams and Katie Couric on a nightly basis. I can just imagine what the hotheads over on the cable channels are saying about it.
Doing almost exactly what he said he would do on Iraq and Afghanistan is somehow "breaking a campaign promise."
Obama is a secret socialist.
Media decides en masse to ignore votes in Congress which are bipartisan, because it doesn't fit into their storyline.
Obama is a failure because he hasn't changed Washington overnight.
The stock market going down is all Obama's fault.
The stock market going up is not because of anything Obama did.
Obama doing exactly what he said he would do about (insert issue here), which is shocking news, and should be seen as a failure and a broken campaign promise.
Obama's hair is going grey.
Michelle Obama is exercising her right to bare arms, which will cause Western Civilization to collapse next Tuesday.
Obama is trying to do too much.
Obama is trying to do too much, too soon.
Presidents should not be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
Presidents should not pick NCAA basketball brackets, and American sports fans are outraged that he would do so on ESPN.
Obama is too popular.
Obama should drop everything and focus on the economy's problems.
Obama is a secret communist-lover (from Fox News, during a press conference).
Obama is a secret communist.
Obama is incapable of saying more than three words without a TelePrompTer to tell him what to say. All those hours and hours of questions he has answered without a TelePrompTer should be ignored, because he is such an idiot that we say he uses the TelePrompTer as a crutch and you should believe us.
Obama is a secret populist.
Obama is a secret ultra-capitalist.
Obama is a secret Marxist.
Obama wants to nationalize the economy.
Obama is going to force everyone to give up their health care plan and never see their family doctor ever again.
Obamacare will be one-size-fits-all government-run and government-rationed health care.
The Democratic Party is hopelessly divided, as evidenced by all those votes where they pass all that legislation by all voting together, with very few defections.
The Republican Party is not hopeless divided, as evidenced by the fact that they have no leader, no plan, and nobody to intelligently speak for them except a bunch of second-rate yahoos.
Obama is a secret ultra-liberal.
Obama is polarizing.
Obama should not speak at Notre Dame until the Pope personally examines every thing he says and believes for religious purity.
Obama's Europe trip was a giant failure.
Michelle Obama tackled the Queen of England, linebacker-style, and then danced a jig on her twitching body. Or something.
Obama broke a campaign pledge on Cuba by doing exactly what he said he was going to do when he spoke in Miami on the campaign trail, instead of how we, the media, thought we remembered what he said.
Obama's Caribbean trip was a giant failure.
Obama shaking hands with Hugo Chavez will cause America to collapse, because instead of doing the decent diplomatic thing, he should have stood up and punched Chavez in the face.
Obama shouldn't have accepted a puppy from Teddy Kennedy, he should have turned the dog down and gotten one from a shelter, even though that puppy probably was actively being rescued at the time.
Obama's first 100 days was a giant list of failure after failure. The American public is just too stupid to realize this, so it's a good thing they have us — the media — to explain these things to them. Maybe sooner or later they'll listen to us and his approval ratings will actually come down a bit. Because even though the polls say two-thirds of America approves of the job Obama is doing, you'll just have to trust us when we say "America thinks Obama has failed so far."
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