I. An Obama era?
And on the 99th day, U.S. Sen. Arlen Spector, influential Pennsylvania Republican, stunned Washington by switching parties. Just when the knock on Obama for failing to deliver the bipartisanship he promised (an over-rated virtue, by the way; the Dems won resoundingly, they should govern on the agenda the electorate endorsed) - a miracle like this happens. Reminds us of the beginning of the three-decade-long Reagan era that began in 1980, whose early days were marked by Dems, particularly in the South, crossing the aisle to join the party of a popular president.
Harry Reid (D-NV), U.S. senate majority leader, at the podium. To his left, fellow U.S. senator Susan Collins (R-ME). On Reid's right, Arlen Spector, Republican-turned-Democratic U.S. senator of Pennsylvania.
Granted, Spector is a moderate who ired fellow Republicans by being among only three GOP senators to support Obama's unprecedented $787-billion (U.S.) stimulus bill. (The others were the two Maine senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.) Still, Spector has carried a lot of water for Republican administrations in his four decades or so on the Hill, most notoriously his championing of Clarence Thomas, one of the least qualified Supreme Court nominees in history.
With the likely ascension of Minnesota's Al Franken to the upper chamber, the party led by Barack Obama will achieve a filibuster-proof "super-majority" of 60 votes - the first time in decades that either party has achieved that degree of power. The black man who led Virginia, heart of the Confederacy, back into the Democratic fold and also captured deep-red Indiana and North Carolina last Nov. 4, has just seen his chance to enact an activist agenda soar.
It's far too early to herald a new, lengthy Reagan-like era for Obama. He's still in honeymoon phase, and has replaced one of the most dangerously incompetent presidents in history.
Reagan benefited from two towering strengths. He was enormously likeable, which made him impervious to comical blunders like forgetting the names of his own cabinet officers and snoozing through an audience with the Pope. And Reagan's agenda was based on tax cuts and smaller government, perennial crowd-pleasers. Few things are easier for a legislator to do than vote in favour of a president's tax cut. Few things are tougher than explaining back in the district why you voted against one - no matter how fiscally ruinous it might be, or its implications in reduced government services.
That Reagan and his two immediate successors were each, in fact, big government, big spending presidents, each leaving behind a larger deficit and national debt than the last, was easily glossed with, in Reagan's case, the Teflon-coated popularity he enjoyed (as Democratic congresswoman Pat Schroeder dubbed it) that arose from his sunny optimism. And by pitting Americans against each other in so-called culture wars over gun ownership, abortion, religion in the schools, gay rights and other issues that - if Americans stopped to think about it - had zero to do with their personal prosperity. Or with the advancement of their nation as a leader in technology, medical breakthroughs, diplomatic and military prowess (the Soviet Union wasn't toppled by the West but self-destructed, to the great surprise of an American intelligence community that would later be similarly blindsided by the attacks of 9/11), and especially progress in the social welfare issues of quality education and healthcare. The U.S. ranks about 20th in literacy and numeracy, outranked by South Korea among other rising industrial rivals.
Contemplating the prospect of a long stay in the political wilderness, akin to the fate of Democrats from 1980 to 2008, Republicans can see from recent same-sex marriage advances in a handful of states that the culture-war card is becoming the joker in the deck. In any event, the new president actually walks the walk on family values, unlike so many of the debauched, hypocritical "moralizers" of the right. (Serial adulterer Newt Gingrich, Vegas high-roller William Bennett, recovering "hillbilly heroin" (Oxycontin) addict Rush Limbaugh, lecherous Bill O'Reilly, among other Obama scolds.)
Obama is in many ways a social conservative. He opposes same-sex marriage. He is only reluctantly pro-choice (and has long been attacked in his own party over his tepid support of Roe v. Wade). Obama for years has urged fellow Democrats to shed their widely off-putting public secularism, and adopt the language of religion in public discourse. And he has sermonized on personal responsibility in almost every major speech he has given this decade. ("Any man can make a woman pregnant. It takes courage to be a father.") And that's an authentic, loving family Americans see the in White House, one that mirrors their own highest ideals for family and community.
The GOP's only opening is the undisguised liberal Obama agenda. The new president is more of a fiscal hawk than the left wing of his party cares for. But he believes in government. He believes in spending on neglected priorities like fixing a dysfunctional healthcare system and replacing Civil War-vintage schoolhouses. And unlike fretful Dems of the Reagan era, Obama isn't afraid to say so and make a compelling case for effective government.
That makes Obama vulnerable to the founding American ideal of rugged individualism. Which may be an elaborately concocted myth of many generations' construction. But there it is, all the same.
Rejecting the Obama stimulus money on behalf of his state, Governor Rick Perry of Texas recently talked about secession from the "collectivist, socialist" union the right accuses Obama of trying to create. I personally would love to see Texas secede for a year, and learn what it means to struggle without federal manna for its subsidized cattle and oil industries, its highways, its Medicare and Medicaid payments for everyday Texans. And then watch the Lone Star State begin begging for renewed statehood four months into the experiment.
But that's not how it works in the real world, of course. The every-man-for-himself America that libertarians crave has never been tried, and the ensuing chaos and misery never endured. (In the midst of one mega-project, saving the Union, Abraham Lincoln's government was also financing construction of North America's first transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific.) So the anti-government message will continue to resonate, even post-Katrina, when Americans relearned the imperative of effective government. Unless, that is, Obama can powerfully show improved quality of life for everyday Americans under a regime in which their government helps them take better care of each other.
Otherwise, the GOP is in trouble. Because Reagan's other strength, likeability, Obama possesses in depth. He is self-deprecating, a great explainer, deliberative yet decisive ("three shots, three dead pirates" is the Dems' answer on Obama possibly being soft on national security), and he readily fesses up to mistakes. With that broad, sincere smile and relentless but measured optimism, Obama is immensely likeable. The GOP can attack his policies, and with some effect. But on character, which usually is the trump card, as it was for the extraordinarily likeable, optimistic and trusted FDR and Reagan, the GOP is playing a busted straight.
II. Obama's first 100 days.
The "first 100 days" is a media conceit dating from FDR, who achieved legislative passage of an unprecedent torrent of legislation early on which these days would have been combined into an efficient handful of bills. And it's not like the new president is on probation, living by his wits as the leader of a minority government that could fall any day. For better or worse, Americans are stuck with Obama for at least another 1,360 days.
But we'll play.
This is not a "on the one hand, on the other" assessment. Americans chose wisely in their selection of the 44th president, who deserves his 68 per cent public-approval rating. Obama has exceeded high expectations, at home and abroad.
We'll start with the disappointments, though. Obama's state department has decided to keep the exonerated Maher Arar on a terrorist watch list. Obama has not taken Wall Street's solons of finance to the woodshed. As he did with GM's Rick Wagoner, Obama needs to force Ken Lewis' replacement at Bank of America Corp. and probably that of Lewis' counterpart at Citigroup Inc. as well. (Uncle Sam is the controlling shareholder in those firms, as well, after billions of dollars in bailouts.) Obama hasn't imposed a "course correction" on the errant bankers, who remain in arrogant denial about their role in the global financial collapse. He needs them, even at the risk of losing their ludicrous bonuses, to shed the toxic assets on their books at a loss and, thus cleansed, stop acting as a brake on economic recovery. If Obama isn't overly in thrall to the pro-Israel lobby, how else to explain why he properly extends the hand of friendship to Iran and Venezuela but is strangely silent on a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinian Authority? He risks letting hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu sabotage a viable peace process. Obama's proposed cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions to combat global warming - unlikely to gain Senate passage anyway - is a needless handout to business, and a convoluted alternative to a straightforward carbon tax.
On the plus side, we'll simply endorse these observations about the water-walker. (Actually, we think of Obama as simply a guy who can walk and chew gum at the same time, which seems to astonish the jaded Beltway crowd.)
Joe Klein of Time, venerable presidential chronicler: "The legislative achievements have been stupendous - the $789 billion stimulus bill, the budget plan that is still being hammered out (and may, ultimately, include the next landmark safety-net program, universal health insurance). There has also been a cascade of new policies to address the financial crisis - massive interventions in the housing and credit markets, a market-based plan to buy the toxic assets that many banks have on their books, a plan to bail out the auto industry and a strict new regulatory regime proposed for Wall Street. Obama has also completely overhauled foreign policy, from Cuba to Afghanistan. 'In a way, Obama's 100 days is even more dramatic than Roosevelt's,' says Elaine Kamarck of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. 'Roosevelt only had to deal with a domestic crisis. Obama has had to overhaul foreign policy as well, including two wars. And that's really the secret of why this has seemed so spectacular.'"
George Packer of the New Yorker, who during the campaign last year thought Obama might be an empty suit: "Having already signed a nearly eight-hundred-billion-dollar stimulus bill, restored the rule of law to America’s treatment of detainees in its custody, developed plans to shore up the banking and housing sectors, demanded new regulation of private equity and hedge funds, proposed sweeping reforms in health care, energy, and education, and deepened the country’s involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama, in his tenth week in office, effectively put the government in charge of a large part of the automobile industry. And that was just Monday. By midweek, at the G-20 meeting in London, he had also committed the United States in principle to a new global regulatory framework for financial markets and, by some accounts, had resurrected the art of Presidential diplomacy. Then, on Thursday night, he won passage of a $3.5-trillion budget, whose tax and spending provisions mark the end of a long-term trend toward greater inequality."
Jim VandeHei and John F. Harris of Politico.com: "The White House is pushing back against what it realizes is a dangerous perception that Obama may be trying to do too much, too fast - and cynically exploiting the economic crisis to push through unrelated agenda items. Aides are urging reporters to reread his campaign speeches, dating back to 2006, to see that Obama was upfront with voters on his big ambitions. They are basically right."
David Brooks, house conservative columnist at the New York Times: "It was not automatic that an administration led by a 47-year-old with little Washington experience would run a professional, smoothly functioning operation. Yet he has. The administration has unveiled a dazzling array of proposals with a high degree of efficiency and managerial skill. This has inspired confidence in his team, if not in the government as a whole."
Lewis Black, playwright and political satirist, in a Globe interview prior to a Toronto gig: "I think he's great, in the sense that he speaks English, which is a nice thing to have for a change. Now people are... yelling at him for doing too much and pushing too fast. Well, that's what he's supposed to be doing...He at least tries to talk to the American people, and the rest of the world, as if they were intelligent...And [his family] actually seems to be a legitimate family. They seem to enjoy each other."
Highly recommended for both political junkies and incurable romantics taken with spontaneous expressions of First Couple affection.
Photo-illustration by BigFurHat. Many thanks to PJ Dempsey!