Has it been only 100 days since Barack Obama took the oath of office? Actually, it's only been 98, but sometimes 100 days feels like more than 100 days. This is one of those times. Obama's first 100 days have been among the most eventful in history.
So how's it going?
According to the American people, pretty damn good. Not only does 69 percent of the public approve of the job Obama is doing, but last week, for the first time since January 2004, more Americans felt the country is headed in the right direction than in the wrong direction (48 percent to 44 percent). Remarkably, this "right direction" number has been steadily rising even as the economy has been steadily falling.
In his Grant Park acceptance speech on election night, the newly elected president warned that "the road ahead will be long," and "our climb will be steep." But his poll numbers are a vindication of the idea that, with the right leadership, Americans are mature enough to heed those words and not expect immediate results.
So any list of the most impressive achievements of Obama's first 100 days should start with the intangible qualities of transformational leadership --- from the president's personal equanimity (which Robert Reich described as "the serene center of the cyclone -- exuding calm when most Americans are petrified") to his masterful use of the bully pulpit.
In just his first 100 days, Obama has had almost as many prime time press conferences as George Bush did in his entire first term. And it's not just press conferences. Obama's willingness to speak directly to the American people -- in town halls around the country, on YouTube, on Leno, on ESPN, etc -- and to engage with them by answering questions online and reading ten letters a day from the public, is a powerful reminder that the White House isn't a privatized bubble or underground bunker off limits to the people.
He's also offered tone setters that are a useful reminder that the president is more than just the country's chief executive -- that he and the First Lady are also potentially the country's chief teachers. They've already taught the country a lot of lessons -- about what we eat and how we eat by planting an organic vegetable garden at the White House, and about commitment to family through their relationship with their daughters and by having the First Granny move into the White House to help Sasha and Malia settle into their new lives.
Now to the more tangible aspects of his presidency. Let's start with the pluses:
- The stimulus package. It wasn't big or bold enough, and it suffered from the malodorous scent of Eau de Congressional Business as Usual, but the speed and focus with which it was passed showed how serious Obama was about pulling America out of its economic free-fall. And how competent his team was at hitting the ground running. Plus, it taught the new president an important lesson about the limits of bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship.
A solid run of pluses. Now for the minuses:
- The bank bailout. In his appointments at almost every agency, Obama has demonstrated a desire to receive a wide range of opinion. But the exception is a doozy: at Treasury, the range of opinion goes all the way from Goldman to Sachs. Several hundred billion dollars later, the banks still aren't lending, the zombies are still on their feet, preferred shareholders are still being catered to, the knowledge of where our money has gone is spotty at best, and oversight and transparency remain unfulfilled promises. The Obama White House's vision for the rescue remains startlingly myopic. The result is the continued funneling of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to the very people who got us into the mess we are in -- with very little accountability demanded in return. The biggest black mark on Obama's first 100 days is his head-scratching reliance on the bank-centric beliefs of Larry Summers and Tim Geithner.
For the last eight years, we suffered from the soft bigotry of low presidential expectations. Taken as a whole, Obama's first 100 days have been an inspiring change from a White House that expected as little from us as it did from itself.
The road ahead is indeed going to be long and steep. But at least we're on the right road.