Barack Obama is the first candidate I have supported at any level of government whose first 100 days greatly exceeded my expectations. What has Obama done differently from the rest? First, he did not spend three months learning how to get things done in his new job. Second, he did not follow his swearing in by backtracking from key campaign promises, or slowing the pace of change. Third, he never allowed himself to get on the defensive, regardless of how the media pressed him using Republican talking points. Fourth, he consistently sets the agenda, rather than letting his adversaries steer him off course. Fifth, he acted as a strong leader, conveying an image no Democratic President has done since John Kennedy. Finally, Obama did something late last week that might have impressed me more than any of the other qualities, for it revealed something about his approach that challenges the prevailing wisdom about him.
With George W. Bush receding into the background for most of 2008, Barack Obama has been the dominant national politician since he won the Democratic presidential nomination nearly one year ago. That helps explain why Obama’s presidential tenure seems a lot longer than 100 days, and why this early milestone is getting so much attention.
Aggressively Pushing Change
Even many of Obama’s strongest supporters assumed that he would take a few months to settle into office, learning the ropes before launching his leading policy initiatives. But in his first 100 days President Obama has advanced his key proposals around health care, education, and energy, and effectively won passage of the most progressive national budget since at least 1965 (the “War on Poverty” budget)
After many predicted Obama would stay away from the “third rail” of immigration reform, he announced that he would promote a proposal this year.
Obama has been steadfast in support of the Employee Free Choice Act despite labor’s internal conflicts and its failure to mount a powerful grassroots campaign.
He has already won a tripling of the size of Americorps, fulfilling his -- and Michelle’s -- promise to make national service a centerpiece of his administration.
Most impressive is Obama’s unwillingness to use the nation’s economic problems and massive budget deficit as an excuse for delaying his agenda. To the contrary, on expensive programs like high-speed rail, universal health care, and many others, Obama argues that the current economic crisis makes action even more pressing.
A Compromiser and Incrementalist?
The rap on Obama from the left has always been that he is too willing to compromise, and that, contrary to his campaign message, he is satisfied with incremental rather than meaningful change.
Now, for some Obama critics, he will always be a change poseur because he is not promoting single-payer health care, the nationalization of the financial sector, and the conversion of U.S. domestic and foreign policy to that of Sweden or Norway. But even those living in the real world of United States politics felt that his past political experience, and his emphasis on bipartisanship, raised concerns about his willingness to stand firm for progressive principles.
Here’s what we’ve learned so far:
On the stimulus package and the budget, Obama got everything he cared about (the specific budget programs have not been finally approved, but the blueprint has been)
On universal health care, nearly $700 billion is already in the budget.
On the environment and energy policy, Obama’s appointees have done virtually everything possible to reverse Bush regulations and chart a new direction. If a “cap and trade” measure does not pass Congress this year, it will be due to a lack of political support, not Obama caving in to industry.
He has made a clean break from the past
in U.S. policy toward Latin American, and has already gone further in changing policy toward Cuba than any prior president
Resisting the Filibuster
Late last week, Barack Obama met with senators from both parties to discuss whether the Senate should pass a procedural measure preventing Republicans from filibustering a health care bill. This question is critical, as securing 51 votes is significantly easier than 60, and means that no Republican votes would be needed.
As news reports confirmed
, Obama drew a line in the sand and insisted that health care reform must not be stopped by a failure to secure 60 votes. As the New York Times put it, “Obama has given way in some battles with Congress, but the new stance suggests he may be much less willing to compromise when it comes to health care, his top legislative priority, even if it means a bitter partisan fight.”
Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND), a key figure in the health care debate, had publicly opposed changing procedures to bar a filibuster on health care. But under “intense pressure” from Obama, Conrad agreed to a measure that would bar a filibuster should health care legislation not pass by October.
Here’s what I learned from this episode: Barack Obama’s amiable, non-confrontational demeanor means that when he gets angry, or insists that matters go his way, his steadfastness is believed and deference is granted. Unlike Bill Clinton, who publicly used anger to cloak a later compromise, politicians know that when Obama gets stubborn he means it, and it enables him to get his way.
That’s why, when Conrad saw Obama’s steadfastness, he relented. And why on every big issue to date, the president has gotten his way.
To date, the “compromises” that the media talks about Obama making say more about reporters naiveté than about the President “giving in.” Reporters act as if Obama puts forth his last, best offer when introducing legislation or funding proposals, when it should be obvious that both are put forward with the assumption that certain components will be deleted or modified.
Whereas Obama loyalists are mystified at his Afghanistan policy, he has not gone beyond what he repeatedly pledged during his campaign. And while his “cutting” of the defense budget is actually a smaller than expected increase, even this reform is under attack. We cannot expect a sharp cut in military spending until a powerful grassroots movement emerges to overcome defense industry lobbyists.
Obama’s appointment of Larry Summers as Director of the National Economic Council continues to make no sense, and it is hard to believe that the President could not have gotten a less tarnished and publicly effective Treasury Secretary than Tim Geithner. But consumer confidence is rising despite these appointments.
Recently, Keith Olberman and other progressives have sharply attacked Obama for opposing the prosecution of CIA operatives who engaged in torture, and also rejecting a bipartisan “Truth” Commission. I attribute Obama’s decision to his focus on enacting his top priorities and avoiding distractions, rather than as a craven capitulation to the national security establishment.
No elected official will do everything we want, exactly when we want it. But I am hard-pressed to think of any living politician who has executed executive authority more effectively in their first 100 days than Barack Obama.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the new book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)