Barack Obama's First 100 Days: An Assessment of Competence, Conciliatory Style and Substance

Posted in United States | 23-Apr-09 | Author: Dieter Farwick

"Barack Obama obviously regards himself as a communicator who can explain the new policy"
"Barack Obama obviously regards himself as a communicator who can explain the new policy"
It's a tradition to come up with a first evaluation after the first 100 days of any new incumbent. It lies in the nature of those interim evaluations that they are more focused on a "new way" than on results.

Quite a change

It goes without saying that change is not an aim in itself; it is the direction and the substance that comes along with the change that counts. It seems fair to say that the US has remarkably changed since January 20 - the inauguration day. The new self-confidence at home and the improved image of the United States of America abroad can already be seen and felt.

Most Americans - especially members of the various minorities - are proud that the American voters elected the first African-American president - only one generation after bitter fights between the races. Equal rights and equal opportunities have become a reality. This dramatic change has one source: Barack Obama. He presents himself directly to the people - be it his numerous TV and radio appearances or in his presidential town hall meetings. He appears open-minded and serious - but relaxed. In America, you cannot escape him. He is always present and very active - some critics already argue that he is too active.

The big question remains whether or not Barack Obama can sustain the current momentum over the next difficult years to come. Some observers have the perception that the new US government is so far a "one-man-show" - with his wife Michele supporting him successfully. Barack Obama obviously regards himself as a communicator who can explain the new policy. It is even more important that he might feel that he is the only person to win the hearts and the minds of the American people as well as trust and confidence that he is capable to find solutions to solve or mitigate the deep-rooted financial and economic crisis.

The renowned American historian Walter Laqueur, Member of WSN's International Advisory Board presents his view after the first 100 days:

"It should be obvious to everyone that the president is not to be envied. He has taken up office in a situation where there are not many laurels to be reaped in domestic issues as well as foreign policy issues. In my opinion, he so far has not made any grave mistakes. Perhaps some of his decisions (particularly with regard to economic policy) came a bit slowly; perhaps there were too many press conferences. The difficult times still lie ahead for him - and for us. Many Europeans are disappointed - Obama is not a reincarnation of Kennedy. They have forgotten how unpopular Kennedy was in Europe during the Cuban Missile Crisis."

It's the economy, stupid

This phrase couldn't be more appropriate than right now. For Barack Obama the choice is: Make or break. His own political future is at stake. His own career will be decided on his economic and financial achievements. If he fails to lead the country into better economic and financial conditions, there will be no chance for a second term.

Obama is aware that the United States is experiencing one of the deepest economic crises that it has ever endured and that the problems are much bigger than he had thought prior to taking office.

Given that the problems are unique in US recent history, no one knows for sure what the best means and tools are to solve them. There is no commonly accepted blueprint to pick and choose from.

The country-wide picture is heterogeneous. There are states that are much better off than others. Unemployment levels vary from state to state. The states that are worst off now are the ones that profited in the past from the automobile industry with its wealth and stability.

President Barack Obama pushed two major programs through the Senate and the House - against the votes of the opposing Republicans. The first big decision was the $787 billion economic stimulus package to bail out failing banks, insurance companies and ailing production companies that were facing bankruptcy. The second was to present the next federal budget, amounting to $ 3.6 trillion.

These figures are far beyond the imagination of any ordinary citizen - not just in the US. It comes as no surprise that many Americans have raised their concerns about this financial burden for future American generations. Critics are afraid that the budget will create deficits of $9.3 trillion over the next ten years. This expression of concern and criticism is not just coming from come from Republican politicians, but also from ordinary citizens from both sides of the political spectrum. On Wednesday, April 16, thousands of Americans from across the country celebrated "Tax Day Tea Parties" - a kind of grass-roots demonstration remembering the historic Boston Tea Party of November 28, 1773. The participants expressed their outrage over government spending.

Another controversial issue is the handling of the crisis involving General Motors and Chrysler. The people in the car-making states advocate another support package from the government. They are afraid of high rise in unemployment. Others do not want to see the founding of "Government Motors." So far, the leading figures of General Motors and Chrysler have not been capable of offering a viable future concept - neither to the government nor to the Senate. President Obama will decide within the next weeks what to do. Chrysler's deadline is May 1, and General Motors June 1. If Chrysler is not able to present Fiat as a partner - which seems at present to be in doubt - and if General Motors does not present a new concept then insolvency of both companies seems to be the president's preferred option. Mitt Romney sided with the President by saying that incompetent managers do not deserve the taxpayers' money.

Insolvency would make it possible for both companies to be split into "good" and "bad" parts. No easy decision. Whatever decision Barack Obama makes, he will come under heavy fire. To make things even worse and more complicated: No one knows whether the bottom of the financial and economic crises has been reached or whether more bad news will pop up -e.g. with the "bad banks."

It's the constitution, stupid

WSN Global Editor Dieter Farwick (left) with the historian Walter Laqueur: "In my opinion he so far has not made…
WSN Global Editor Dieter Farwick (left) with the historian Walter Laqueur: "In my opinion he so far has not made grave mistakes"
Louis J. Freeh, the former director of the FBI, sheds light on another issue: the American constitution. In his op-ed in the Washington Times from March 31, he states that "transparent accountability for how our government spends our money is not optional. The constitution imposes upon the national government an explicit duty that a regular statement and account of receipts and expenditure of all public money shall be published from time to time."

The president realizes that transparent accountability is crucial to win trust and confidence. He said that each member of his cabinet "will be held accountable by me and the American people for every dollar they spend."

Louis J. Freeh stresses the point that there is no need for new laws to implement an efficient monitoring system. There are best practices available to change the present situation, which one US Senator describes as follows: "There's no way we can have oversight over this money." It is in the interest of the president and his cabinet to act quickly. If and when American people get the impression that there is no transparent accountability - as required by the constitution - how the huge amount of the taxpayer's money is spent, then the president will face stiff opposition.

No time-out for foreign policy

There is no doubt that domestic issues have priority at the moment for the US president, but there cannot be a time-out for foreign policy - otherwise other powers would exploit any vacuum to improve their position and to promote their national interests. A world power like the US cannot leave the floor to others. Many countries rely on the US as being a protecting power.

There is no lack of frozen and active conflicts around the globe which have to be tackled simultaneously: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Georgia and Ukraine. In addition, there is the need to find a way to deal with the emerging world powers China and India as well as with Russia - the would-be world power.

In his first 100 days Barack Obama had to climb a lot of summits - from the G 20 summit to the NATO summit and last but least, the " Summit of the 34 Americas." There is no doubt that these summits came too early for the President Obama. They should have been postponed, but this is not realistic. Obama was not prepared to offer a coherent American "Grand Strategy" for all problems at stake. He tried to make the best of it. He embarked upon a charm offensive that was quite successful - assisted by his charming wife. He told all of his counterparts, opponents and antagonists that his government will reach out and will act with "mutual respect." He wants to listen, consult and learn. He stresses that there are no senior and junior partners, that all partners are "equal." He stated that the US would no longer dominate the partners. He presented a change in the political atmosphere as well as in personal style. If he does not lose sight of his strategic aims and objectives, these tactics might pay off.

As president of a world power, Barack Obama will not be loved around the globe, but he will be respected. It will take some time before he can add substance to his new policy. This substance might be painful for those people and politicians who take style and atmosphere to mean substance.

It goes without saying that the U.S. will be forced by the domestic problems to ask allies and partners for more burden sharing and a revised division of labor. Barack Obama has had to swallow his first setbacks.

The most pressing issue for Barack Obama is Iran. His overtures for a new way in US-Iran relations received a vague response. Iran's President Ahmadinejad asked for changes in substance, not in style and rhetoric. His recent speech at the UN Conference on Racism was not very promising.

The time is running out for Obama. He has nothing to offer to stop the clock ticking towards "breakout capability" - the capability of Iran to switch from a nuclear energy program to a nuclear weapons program within months. He might face a hot summer with tough decisions. If and when Israel decides to attack strategic assets of Iran's nuclear program prior to the point of no return - which might be reached already this summer - and if and when Israel asks for American support, then Barack Obama will have trouble. He faces an almost no-win challenge.

If and when Obama decides to support Israel directly and indirectly his policy in the Broader Middle East will come to a halt. If and when he decides not to support Israel in any way, Obama will lose Israel as a partner in this volatile region. It might be the beginning of the end of the state Israel. Iran will exploit the perceived weakness of Obama to encourage Hamas and Hizbollah to start another intifada or limited attacks under the at least "virtual"- nuclear umbrella. The decision on Iran will decide Barack Obama's future foreign policy - with repercussions around the globe.

The second setback came out of Asia. North Korea launched a strategic missile in spite of Obama's effort to reach out. The "dear leader" wanted to show Barack Obama that he will not give up his policy of giving little and taking much. He certainly is neither impressed by the US president calling the missile launch a "provocation"- nor by the UN's sanctions.

Regarding his policies toward Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama faces opposition from his own party. The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq will take more time than Obama had previously promised and more American troops than expected will remain there. To send an additional 17 000 soldiers and 4 000 non-military personnel is a tough decision in light of the domestic strains. But he is right. A temporary military surge to pave the way for civilian aid is the only choice.

His regional "AFPAK" approach is right, too. There is no solution for Afghanistan without stabilizing Pakistan - and vice versa. The tribal areas (FATA) in North Western Pakistan are a special issue in the region. Last year, WSN began an initiative to give young people a better chance for education and training. The youth need the hope for a better and safer future. The US and other partners should cooperate and find a way to get the 5 billion dollars from the donor nations to the people on the ground. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was right in blaming state and non-state organizations and institutions for wasting a lot of the money that was donated to the support Afghanistan.

There has been one event where Barack Obama took the opportunity to show his teeth. This was his order to free the Americans being held hostage by pirates east of Somalia - even killing the "Taliban at sea" if not avoidable. This should be taken as a strong signal to take President Obama's resolve seriously - be it in Afghanistan, Iraq or against Iran. Another strong signal of his foreign policy was his visit to Turkey. He obviously regards Turkey as a vital strategic partner in the "Broader Middle East" -including the "Black Sea" and "Central Asia." But his plea to accelerate Turkey's membership in the EU was caused by the still-missing "Grand Strategy."

The drama at the NATO summit with Turkey's blockade in the election of the new NATO Secretary General has enforced the resistance of the majority of Europeans against Turkey's partnership in the EU. Any fight for or against Turkey's membership will hurt American-European relations. Barack Obama should use his influence in Ankara to show Turkey a new way and mission. Turkey could play an important role for the US, NATO and the EU as an independent honest broker between Asia and Europe for the benefit of all.

Picking a competent team

U.S. President Barack Obama and Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez: "He must show that his conciliatory political style is not a…
U.S. President Barack Obama and Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez: "He must show that his conciliatory political style is not a sign of weakness"
Prior to and shortly after his inauguration, Barack Obama presented the members of his cabinet - representatives from all walks of American politics. With his choice of Robert Gates he reached out to the Republicans, and with the choice of Hillary Clinton, he pleased her affiliates. There were some setbacks - most prominently Senator Tom Daschle, who was not confirmed by the Senate because of tax evasion issues.

The confirmation process in the Senate has pros and cons. It is a way to avoid that people being selected as high-ranking members of the White House staff or the government cause damage to the president and the government should they later have to confess to former wrong-doings. On the other hand, the confirmation process works as a deterrent for qualified people who do not want to give the Senate an insight into their lives - including those of their family. The catalogue of questions includes very sensitive and intimate questions as people told me who went through this process in the past. In addition: It takes much too long to get important people confirmed by the Senate so they can begin to do to their job. At present, there are more than 500 nominees to go through the process. It will take weeks and months to get their confirmation.

Therefore, it is not surprising that there are a lot of gaps at the second and third level. But these people are in urgent need. They have to coordinate their work with other agencies and prepare the documents for the decision makers. It is almost absurd that US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is a sole fighter in the middle of the financial tsunami. This huge gap might have generated the poor crisis management regarding AIG and the bonuses. At a given moment, there was an outcry in the government, the Congress and in the media when the public learned of the millions of bonuses being paid to managers who obviously had done a poor job. After the public hype - during which one Senator asked those managers either to resign or to commit suicide Japanese style - all had to paddle back. It turned out that the bonuses were legal and that Timothy Geithner and some more people knew that the bonuses would be paid - as in 2008 - prior to the outcry. Even the president was hurt by this mismanagement.

A complete and competent team might have avoided that setback in the president's fight for trust and confidence.

It goes without saying that taking the bonuses was legally correct, but not morally correct.

What is on the score card of the 44th U.S. President?

I asked Arnaud de Borchgrave, former Editor-in-Chief for the Washington Times and now Director and Senior Adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies to present WSN his assessment of the President's first 100 days:

"Excellent start. Terrible hand inherited from Bush 43. Within next few months, public opinion, always fickle, will start blaming him for the ongoing economic mess. Afghanistan is already Obama's war. Unless he can show rapid and dramatic progress on both economic and war fronts, he will run the serious risk of losing one of the two houses of Congress, perhaps even both - and America becomes gridlocked again."

There is no doubt: President Barack Obama had an impressive start into his first term. But he already had to make tough decisions that could not please everybody - including his own electorate. His recent decision not to charge the CIA interrogators was one of them. The closure of Guantanamo is much more complicated then expected and will take more time. Obama's commitment in the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda - now officially called "Overseas Contingency Operations"- received mixed feedback in public.

President Obama's greatest achievement has been to give America a new image at home and abroad.


I asked Jackson Janes, Executive Director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (Washington D.C.) and Member of the WSN International Advisory Board to give WSN his view of the present and future of Barack Obama's policies:

"Obama is sending a message to the country that there are multiple challenges which all need to be addressed at the same time. Be it the financial crisis, health care reform or energy policies, Obama has declared that it is time to remake America at home and reshape its foreign policy abroad. That includes the swift decisions in the foreign policy arena such as closing down Guantanamo, restarting arms control discussions with the Russians, starting engagement with Iran and moving to increase the efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, just to name a few. At the same time, he is making sure that the nation knows that achieving success is going to take time and that he will be leveling with the voters about success as well as setbacks along the way. ...

For now, Obama has been making a lot of reference to the need for bi-partisanship in the Congress and across the country between Republicans and Democrats. However, even those strong Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate don't always translate into a consensus for the president. Both the Republican and Democratic parties are very divergent within their own ranks. But the president has far more popular support than the Congress enjoys. And he intends to use it to put pressure on its members, Republicans and Democrats alike.

There is a similar strategy for his foreign policy. Obama has been reaching out to friend and foe alike, challenging them to respond to his call for common purpose or at least opening up a dialogue. While as president he pursues American interests, Obama is using his global popularity to generate synergy on shared challenges, be it the financial global meltdown, seeking peace in the Middle East, battling terrorism and extremists, or forging common purpose on climate change. Here again, he is using new tools to communicate exemplified by a public video sent to Iranians on their national holiday."

High expectations inherit the risk of disappointment and frustration. Charisma and charm are short-lived assets if they are not combined with knowledge and substance - not just by the president himself, but by his team, too. They all form the kind of leadership which is under great demand for the leader of the world's number one leading power. Unfortunately, there is no time for a period of learning and testing the waters. A running engine has to be repaired.

Other domestic and foreign powers wait for failures and setbacks in order to gain or regain ground. The nut to crack in 2009 will be the decision on Iran. Barack Obama has to decide whether the world would be able to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon or whether a "coalition of the willing" should delay or paralyze the development program of nuclear weapons.

There will be enough opportunities for Barack Obama at home and abroad to show that he is neither soft nor naïve. He must show that his conciliatory political style is not a sign of weakness. As far as the financial and economic crises are concerned, the prognoses of professionals and ordinary citizens show a wide range of views. They range from those who are cautiously optimistic and expect the beginning of the recovery for the end of 2009 to those who are realistic-pessimistic and expect that any recovery will not come within the next 4-5 years.

US President Barack Obama already sees some "flickers of hope."

In light of global interdependence, at least the major trade partners - like China, Japan and Europe - should do what they can to get the "American engine" to run with full steam. Only affluent Americans can afford to buy goods from abroad. On the other hand, the United States of America must increase its domestic production capacities to get less dependent on import - including energy.

The American people have to make a historic decision. Each of them. There is no time for tactical political games. There is no time to fight for small groups' interests. The time has come to serve the country - not more and not less.

The president deserves the benefit of doubt.

The American people have no choice.