As we mark the first 100 days of Barack Obama’s presidency, it is staggering to consider the enormous challenges he inherited from his predecessor, arguably our worst president ever. Can the devastation wrought by an eight-year nightmare be sorted out in 100 days? Of course not. That’s why Obama asked for his accomplishments to be measured not by the first 100 days but by the first 1,000.
Obama deserves credit for the scale and scope of the agenda he has laid out and for confronting the challenges head-on. Within the first 100 hours of his inauguration, he pledged to close Guantánamo and CIA “black sites,” banned the use of torture and repealed the global gag rule on reproductive rights. In the early weeks of his term, he lifted Bush’s ban on funding for stem cell research, took steps to restore science to its proper place with regard to climate change and embarked on a transformation to a green economy. He quickly passed a strong stimulus bill that, despite its inadequate size and overemphasis on tax cuts, charts a path to economic recovery. Taken together, the stimulus plan and Obama’s proposed budget signal a clear break from the ill-conceived dogma about deficit reduction that has defined and limited economic policy for the past thirty years.
On diplomacy, Obama has restored a sense of responsibility and re-engagement with the world after eight years of arrogance and swagger. We see in his progressive realism the rough outline of an Obama doctrine–a belief that, as the president stated, “We do our best to promote our ideals and our values by our example.” To that end, he has called for better US cooperation in global alliances, and gave a firm endorsement of the United Nations. He has declared his commitment to nuclear weapons abolition, thereby opening the door to a renewed and wiser nonproliferation framework. His willingness to engage with countries whose interests and ideas diverge from ours–notably Iran, Russia and Cuba–has created possibilities for cooperation.
But there are two things we fear could endanger the Obama presidency: military escalation in Afghanistan and the bank bailout. Obama has wisely committed his administration to a phased withdrawal from Iraq, but his support for expanding the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan is disappointing. Ramping up the conflict there could negate the positive effects in the Muslim world of withdrawing from Iraq while further destabilizing Pakistan, opening a rift with our European allies and bleeding us of the resources needed for economic recovery at home. We hope that hearings in Congress and citizen pressure will push the administration to bear down on regional diplomacy, common-sense counterterrorism measures and targeted development aid as the best security policies to stabilize the region.
The other area of concern is the bank bailout, a taxpayer-funded gift to Wall Street that could undermine much of the good in the economic plan. With the economy cratering and many projections indicating double-digit unemployment through 2011, there is a sense that Obama has given with one hand through his stimulus package and budget proposal but taken away with the other through the bank bailout. Selecting the Summers/Geithner team was a huge lost opportunity and a major misstep. When more bonuses are paid out and more self-dealing exposed, we may see more anger, especially in the form of right-wing populism.
But there is also reason for optimism. Obama’s pragmatism and experimentation suggest that if the bank bailout doesn’t work and he’s confronted by citizens who understand the endemic problems of the Summers/Geithner approach, he may move to a Plan B–or a Team B–to maintain his credibility and to keep his agenda alive.
Other issues will measure not only Obama’s fighting spirit but whether this Congress has the spine to push for reform and whether progressives can create space for it in a system hard-wired to resist change. (Prospects for change got a big boost with Arlen Specter’s April 28 decision to switch parties, a move that brings the Senate Democratic majority to a filibuster-proof sixty–assuming Al Franken is seated.) The gloves are off over the Employee Free Choice Act. Likewise, brutal battles are looming over energy, climate change and healthcare bills. Will Obama stand for the public plan option, on which real healthcare reform depends? On this and other fronts, will the president temper one of his favorite phrases–“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”–to push the limits of the possible? Making compromises to achieve profound change is one thing; watering down policies to appease for-profit special interests is another.
With regard to torture: Obama took the much-needed step of immediately renouncing it, ending its use and releasing the torture memos–but he is not willing to press for a commission. Congress must investigate so we can hold responsible not only the architects of illegal activity but also those who implemented it. Torture is a sore on the body of the Republic, and Congress must ensure accountability for the future of our democracy and our reputation in the eyes of the world.
Obama laid down some important and worthy markers in his first 100 days. But the big battles will be fought in the next 900. The struggle now is over the budget. Obama knows that the right isn’t going to give an inch, however incoherent its opposition; that some Democrats are turning tail and fixating on deficits instead of investment; and that some of the mistakes
of his economic team have made the budget debate more difficult. Progressives will have to battle lobbies mobilized to halt reforms and a right that rallies its base with bile and smears. For better or worse, Obama has shown himself to be open to influence. Progressives must keep that in mind as we fight for what is just and sustainable.
The president has called on citizens to believe they can bring change to Washington. One way of doing that is to give voice to ideas that were barely heard in the old era of downsized politics and excluded choices–but that now stand a fighting chance.