He is as velvety smooth as a cold glass of Guinness, this new president of ours--and even boasts a drop or two of Irish blood on his mother's side--not to mention the good looks of a Kennedy, the even keel of a Roosevelt, the understated swagger of an Eisenhower. He has riding shotgun with him a First Lady who is simultaneously hip and squared away, and two little girls so pretty and poised they might have come from Central Casting.
Mostly, Barack Obama exhibits the easy timing and Teflon charm of a president who actually came to public service from Hollywood and, so, fittingly, on his 57th day in office, America's first African-American president-emphasis on "American"-invoked Ronald Reagan in a brief and little-noticed ceremony on Capitol Hill.
The scene was the annual "shamrock" luncheon held each March 17.
This lunch was begun under Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan, two men of Irish stock who loved a good scrap, but who also knew how to work together to find common ground and to put the differences of the day aside in favor of laughter and good cheer at the end of the day," Obama noted. He then added, "Looking at all of you, I'm reminded of a greeting President Reagan once offered the guests at this gathering: 'On St. Patrick's Day,' he said, 'you should spend time with saints and scholars. So I have two more stops to go.'"
He got a big laugh, but President Obama was kidding on the square. He, too, has a keen appreciation for the value of not demonizing political opponents. He also has many more stops to go as president, and he knows it. By now, at the end of his First Hundred Days in office, he is also coming to realize that while his Democratic allies in Congress can help him, they can also slow him down, and that putting them in their place, albeit good-naturedly, is not a bad instinct. Mostly, he is learning that ultimately, this job is about results first and foremost; and, secondly, about positioning yourself so that when you don't get results others are to blame.
"Every president has to learn that they cannot reshape the contours of the political landscape to create opportunities for change," presidential scholar George C. Edwards III, noted to me in a recent email. "Instead, successful presidents facilitate change by recognizing opportunities in their environments and fashioning strategies and tactics to exploit them."
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel likes to put it less delicately. "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," he says.
Obama is certainly not letting the current financial crisis go to waste. Which brings us to the other half of the equation: What have we learned about our new president in his First Hundred Days in office? For one thing we've learned what we should have known all along: Barack Obama is a very liberal guy, the good manners, the inclusiveness, and bipartisan language notwithstanding; and that his administration, coupled with a solidly Democratic Congress, is shaping up as a great national experiment on whether liberal policy prescriptions on a host of domestic issues actually will work.
"The country is now in a liberal moment," notes thoughtful blogger Jay Cost of Real Clear Politics. "So, President Obama has a unique opportunity."
Prominent conservatives such as Karl Rove, who have long proclaimed the United States to be a "center-right" nation, have told me that they concur with this succinct assessment. Eliding over the role George W. Bush's two terms in office played in bringing Americans to this point, these conservatives tend to give Obama most of the credit for altering the environment, even while reserving the right to object to his policies.
"On economic matters in particular, Obama has thrown his hat over the wall," says former Bush aide Peter Wehner. "We'll see how it all plays out."
* * * *
Reacting to a perfect storm of a recession that featured a busted housing bubble, a virtual halt in new construction, spiking unemployment, shaken consumer confidence, a stock market meltdown, and a historic financial scandal that froze up the nation's lending institutions, Obama's response has been to spend. And spend, and spend, and spend-all of it borrowed money. This might ultimately prove the right course of action, but the United States has never seen anything like it.
FDR and his speechwriter, Sam Rosenman, would have been shocked. In his first 50 days, never mind his first 100, Obama trotted out a $2 trillion Wall Street bailout, a $787 billion economic stimulus package, a $410 billion supplemental spending bill, and a $275 billion plan to forestall home foreclosures. His $3.5 trillion proposed budget included the first payments on a $634 billion, 10-year "reserve fund" for health care-and hardly anything in the way of new taxes to pay for all this stuff.
By his own staff's calculations, Obama's budgets will add something like $6 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. Not that the White House projections are even close to the mark. Borrowing a dubious page from Reagan's playbook, Obama's numbers are based on fanciful financial assumptions: the Congressional Budget Office predicts that $9 trillion is more like it.
The loyal opposition reflexively opposes all this, of course-not a single GOP House member voted for the stimulus bill-but their motives are suspect because of what occurred during the previous regime. The Republicans who ran Congress during George W. Bush's presidency were more interested in pork, earmarks, and, in some instances, outright graft, than in budget austerity. So what is a principled good-government conservative to do? Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire embraced Obama's call for bipartisanship to the point of accepting Obama's invitation to serve in the cabinet. As he got wind of just how much government spending the new administration had in mind, however, Gregg recoiled in horror, turning down the job as Commerce Secretary.
Eventually conservatives settled on their "tea party" protests as a symbol of their fears about Big Government. These recent soirees were modeled, of course, after the Boston Tea Party, an act of defiance against Parliament, which in 1773 treated the East India Company the way Congress and Obama are treating AIG today-i.e. as "too big to fail"-at the expense of taxpayers. These gatherings generated a lot of media coverage as the realities of Tax Day settled over Americans' benumbed brains, but in one basic way, the tea parties miss the point: Obama hasn't yet proposed raising taxes, just the level of federal borrowing. Either way, it appears that, contrary to Bill Clinton's mid-1990s claim, the era of Big Government is back.
"It's pretty clear people are scared ... that the American Dream may not be alive for their kids and grandkids," House Republican leader John Boehner said recently. "They understand that you can't borrow and spend your way to prosperity."
The stench of Wall Street's meltdown still in their nostrils, conservatives don't talk much in 2009 about making government run more like a business. Yet, that doesn't mean they are ready to embrace the idea of a strong centralized government-far from it. One presumes this concern is what was behind Rush Limbaugh's oafish assertion that he wants Obama to "fail." Arch-conservatives truly are concerned that Obama's government-centric solutions will succeed in the short run in curtailing the recession-or, at least beperceived as having done so-leaving the electorate with a wrong-headed perception that government is the answer. In that case, Obama would prove the un-Reagan.
"Obama is the mirror image of Ronald Reagan," conservative activist and writer Craig Shirley told me recently. "Reagan believed in the goodness of people. Obama believes in the goodness of government."
* * * *
Successful presidential candidates run to daylight, which means exploiting the public's angst with rhetorically soothing solutions. It's only after they assume office that they learn the true nature of the problems they face, let alone know what to do about them. Sometimes, they find that in the heat of the campaign they made molehills into mountains, as was the case in 1961, when President Kennedy learned that the dangerous "missile gap" between the United States and the Soviet Union was largely a creation of Candidate Kennedy's imagination.
Other times, the problems are worse than they ever imagined. In 1932, Democratic presidential nominee Franklin Roosevelt didn't exhort Americans to keep their chins up and resist the temptation to give into their fears. That was President Hoover's rap (not that anyone was listening to Herbert Hoover by 1932). Roosevelt actually went around the country that year lambasting Hoover for battling the Great Depression by resorting to deficit spending. Three weeks before Election Day, at an October rally at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, Roosevelt vowed not only to balance the budget as president, but to slash "government operations" by 25 percent.
Roosevelt wisely reneged on this promise, and did it so thoroughly that few Americans remembered he ever made it in the first place. Still, before heading back to western Pennsylvania four years later for a re-election campaign rally, Roosevelt puckishly asked speechwriter Rosenman what he should say if anyone brought up his earlier promise. "Deny you were ever in Pittsburgh," Rosenman quipped.
As George W. Bush and Dick Cheney learned to their chagrin, there is no denying anything in the YouTube age. That's not Barack Obama's style anyway, and those who are surprised by his actions in his first three months as president weren't really paying attention to what the man was saying when he sought the job.
"I think a lot of people are simply in denial about Obama's election and his subsequent agenda," Mark McKinnon told me. McKinnon worked to elect George W. Bush twice and advised John McCain informally-but, incongruously, was an outspoken admirer of Obama's all during the campaign. He still is. "What Obama is proposing is certainly no great departure from his campaign," McKinnon added. "In fact, if anything, I would argue his approach has been refreshingly more moderate than his campaign on issues like trade and Afghanistan."
McKinnon hints at one reason Obama's liberalism hasn't become more of an issue: carping by those on the Left who expected the president to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq immediately, or propose even more gargantuan spending programs. There's another reason, too, and it's stylistic: Obama didn't quite say he'd be a uniter not a divider-that line was previously taken, and by a man who couldn't pull it off-but he definitely ran as a candidate not inclined toward the sucker punch, the cheap shot, or the kick in the groin. That fact alone stamped him apart from his Democratic brethren in the Age of Dubya. We live in strange times. Today, many of the nation's most prominent liberals-some of them highly placed public officials-routinely issue the most illiberal statements about their political opponents. And, especially when Bush is the subject, it's not just the Michael Moores and the Paul Krugmans and Bill Mahers who speak this way; it's the Nancy Pelosis and Harry Reids as well. Obama is a more elegant communicator.
"You know, putting three Republicans in my cabinet, something that is unprecedented, making sure that they were invited here to the White House to talk about the economic recovery plan, all those were not designed to get some short-term votes," Obama said at a press conference less than three weeks into his tenure. "They were designed to try to build up some trust over time...Hopefully, the tone that I've taken, which has been consistently civil and respectful, will pay some dividends in the long-term."
In that sense Obama seems to be a liberal from another era.
The upshot is that the 44th president of the United States ran, and won, as a conventional liberal, without making his own behavior the issue and without indulging in the anger felt by so many in his party. In so doing, he pulled off a feat no Democrat has managed since 1964, when the boy known then as "Barry" Obama was three years old.
During the campaign, many Democrats hoped aloud that he would prove to be another John F. Kennedy, while worrying secretly he'd turn out to be another Jimmy Carter. Obama's closet conservative admirers-and they were surprisingly plentiful-privately invoked the example of their champion, Ronald Reagan, when opining about the 44th president. Meanwhile, after Election Day, presidential scholars (more liberal than the average pundit, but no less grandiose) quickly began comparing the new president to Franklin Roosevelt. Obviously, no comparison really works. The first African-American president is, by definition, sui generis.
But the problems he inherits are familiar in our nation's history. The differences, so far, are Obama's proposed solutions.
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