By Katrina vanden Heuvel
As we mark the first 100 days of his presidency, it is staggering to consider the enormous challenges President Obama inherited from his predecessor, arguably the worst President ever. Can the devastation wrought by an eight-year nightmare be sorted out in 100 Days? Of course it can't. That's why Obama himself talked about needing to measure his accomplishments not by the first 100 days, but by the first 1,000.
Yet as we near this iconic marker -- whether one is disappointed by some key appointments (read on), the size of the recovery bill, escalation in Afghanistan, the bank bailout plan or other issues -- this President must be given credit for hitting the ground running and confronting challenges head on. Brutal and fundamental fights still lie ahead -- on energy, healthcare, the budget, to name a few.
Obama understood the power -- both symbolic and real -- of swift, smart action, even within the first 100 hours of his inauguration. He pledged to close Guantanamo and the CIA black sites. He quickly passed a strong recovery bill -- even if it was smaller than it should have been; that bill and his proposed budget begin to lay out a new blueprint for economic recovery and reconstruction, and a break with ill-conceived dogma about deficit reduction that has defined and limited economic policy for thirty years. He repealed the global gag order, took steps to restore science to its proper place with regard to stem cell research and addressing climate change, and has embarked on a substantive transformation to a clean energy economy.
On diplomacy, Obama has shown a willingness to engage with countries that may have interests and ideas that diverge from those of the US. He's expressed support for a more central US role in global alliances, including a firm endorsement of the UN, and on recent trips to Europe and Latin America he's set a new tone of respect and listening. He's declared his commitment to nuclear abolition and, in doing so, has opened the door to a renewed and wiser nuclear non-proliferation framework. He has begun to reset the relationship with Russia, reexamining the folly of missile defense, putting NATO expansion on the back burner, and cooperating on regional diplomacy to stabilize Afghanistan. After years of failed policy toward Cuba, the Administration has created new possibilities for cooperation by lifting restrictions on Cuban Americans' visits to relatives and the amount of money they can send to them. Diplomatic overtures to Iran have also opened new windows of possibility. Obama has committed to withdrawing from Iraq on a faster timetable -- and we need to push him to adhere to his commitment to security through withdrawal. It's disappointing to see his support for increasing the defense budget with a new focus on counterinsurgency and low intensity conflict. But, in all, we see in Obama a sense of responsibility and a desire to reengage the world on new terms, following eight years of arrogance and swagger. We see the rough outline of an Obama Doctrine -- progressive realism -- a belief, as the President stated, that "we do our best to promote our ideals and our values by our example." What will be the real test, however, is the one Obama recently described at the Summit of the Americas, "… The test for all of us is not simply words, but also deeds."
But there are two areas which I fear could endanger the Obama Presidency: military escalation in Afghanistan and the bank bailout. With the cratering economy, and most projections indicating double-digit unemployment through 2011, there is a sense that he has given with one hand through his recovery plan and budget proposal, but tied the other with a bank bailout that could undermine much of the good in his economic plan. The contrast between the treatment of the auto industry, where workers and managers and creditors and shareholders are taking the hits, and the bailout of banks is corrosive. The selection of the Summers/Geithner team was a huge missed opportunity and misstep. When more bonuses are paid out, and more self-dealing exposed, we may see more anger -- especially right wing populism. On Afghanistan, I am concerned that it will bleed us of the resources needed for economic recovery, further destabilize Pakistan, open a rift with our European allies, and negate the positive effects of withdrawing from Iraq on our image in the Muslim world.
Alternatively, there is reason for optimism. The President's commitment to pragmatism and experimentation suggests that -- if the bank bailout doesn't work, and he's confronted by mobilized citizens and thinkers who understand the endemic problems of the Summers/Geithner approach -- he may ultimately move to a Plan B or even a Team B in order to maintain his popularity and credibility, and keep his agenda alive.
We can also hope that hearings in Congress, and pressure from citizens who seek a non-military path to security in Afghanistan and Pakistan, will push the Administration to bear down on regional diplomacy, commonsense counter-terrorism measures, and targeted development aid as the most effective security policies to stabilize the region.
Other issues will measure not only Obama's fighting spirit, but whether this Congress has the spine to be a reform Congress, and whether progressives can mobilize to create space in a system hardwired to resist change.
Key challenges lie ahead. Healthcare will be a brutal battle, as will the energy and climate bill. The gloves are already off over the Employee Free Choice Act and we can't afford to lose that fight -- even if it means a compromise, but one that retains key elements of the bill. Will Obama stand for universal healthcare with an option for a public plan? Without that option, meaningful healthcare reform is in real trouble. On these issues and others, will the President temper one of his favorite phrases -- "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" -- in order to push the limits of the possible? There is a fine line between necessary compromises in order to achieve profound change and watering down polices to appease for-profit special interests.
With regard to torture -- Obama took the much needed step of immediately renouncing it, ending its use, and releasing the memos. But we need to hold not only the architects of illegal activity responsible but also those who implemented it. Torture remains a sore on the body republic, and Congress needs to ensure accountability for the future of our democracy and our reputation in the eyes of the world.
But the defining political struggle ahead is the budget. President Obama knows that the right isn't going to give an inch, that members of his own party are turning tail and fixating on deficits instead of investment, and that some of the missteps of his own economic team have made the budget debate even more difficult. Progressives will need to confront lobbies mobilized to halt essential reforms. For better or worse, this President has shown himself as open to influence -- he's malleable -- and progressives need to keep that in mind as we fight for an agenda that is just, sustainable and real.
After 100 days, some important and worthy markers have been laid down by Obama. But the big battles lie ahead in the next 900. On Wednesday, The Nation will host a public forum in DC --Obama @ 100-- to assess the Administration's progress and the President's evolving relationship with progressives. Obama himself has called on citizens to believe in their ability to bring change to Washington. One way of doing that is to attend forums like ours -- forums that give voice to ideas that until now were barely heard in our downsized politics of excluded alternatives -- but with this President stand a fighting chance.
By Katrina vanden Heuvel
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