President Barack Obama is more than halfway through the first 100 days of his Presidency — the so-called "honeymoon period" after which policy initiatives no longer benefit from post-electoral afterglow. We've been getting a picture, day by day, of what things may be like once the honeymoon is over.
I have been a consistent Obama booster. I endorsed his candidacy for the Democratic Presidential nomination in my political memoirs, published at the end of 2007; wrote local and national essays doing the same; sent a check to his campaign; and stood up to be counted at my Belltown precinct caucus, which Obama supporters carried one-sidedly over Hillary Clinton.
I supported his candidacy because I liked his positive message of hope and unity, and because he appeared to offer a break from the hyper-partisanship and polarizations of the Clinton/Bush years. I also had talked with people who had known him since his college days. All praised his intellect and capacity for growth.
Thus far the Obama presidency has had little in common with his disciplined campaign, which seldom strayed from its central themes. It has been ad hoc, inconsistent, and herky-jerky. Promised unity and consensus have given way to one-party proposals to deal with the current financial/economic crises.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and White House economic czar Larry Summers, among the most qualified of his Cabinet and senior advisers, have yet to present a coherent financial/economic rescue plan. After promising change, Obama has relied greatly on Clinton administration alumni. His Cabinet is undistinguished; most are strangers to him and appear mainly to have been chosen for racial, gender, ethnic, partisan, and geographic balance rather than their substantive qualifications to run their respective departments. Rumors persist that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got her job through a bald political deal, made at the Denver Democratic convention, in which she agreed to back off last-minute opposition to Obama's candidacy.
Local appointees appear to illustrate the appointment pattern. Commerce secretaries in administrations of both parties traditionally have been respected business leaders — in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, for instance, former American Airlines CEO C.R. Smith and former Merck CEO John Conner. Former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, by contrast, has no senior standing in the business community. His tenure as governor was most notable for the huge holes he cut in the state-revenue base, with subsidies and tax giveaways for Boeing, Paul Allen, and major state businesses which, since his governorship, have provided fees to his international law practice.
Locke is not a boat rocker. In his new post he will have jurisdiction over the Census Bureau, which soon will be undertaking its regular national headcount. The previous Commerce nominee, a Republican Senator, backed out of the job after he learned that White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel intended to seize control of the count if not the agency itself. Locke, no doubt, will go along with whatever Emanuel tells him.
It is hard to imagine someone less qualified as Deputy Housing and Urban Development Secretary than Ron Sims. Sims' weak suit, as King County Executive, was his administrative competence. His troubles with the county jail, elections office, sewage-treatment facility and transportation planning are well known. Like Locke, he is personable; a nice guy. But the HUD Deputy's job is to administer and run day-to-day a department notorious for its scandals, corruption, and screwups while the Secretary serves as outside man. Unless he is careful, HUD will eat Sims alive.
Gil Kerlikowske, by contrast, will as drug czar return to a Capitol culture in which he previously has served. As Seattle police chief, he functioned effectively as a practical law enforcer while utilizing the light-to-moderate hand which Seattle prefers. His job has been downgraded from its previous Cabinet-level status. But he will have access both to Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Almost certainly, he will be an effective player in the new administration.
Most perplexing to even strong Obama supporters has been the diffuse nature of his first days in office. We face the deepest financial/economic crisis since the Great Depression. Yet Obama has not, as anticipated, concentrated on that subject to the exclusion of everything else. His almost $800-billion economic stimulus package was a one-party initiative which spends a lot of money in future years but provides little stimulus and few jobs in either 2009 or 2010.
He vowed to end wasteful Congressional earmarks yet, last week, signed rather than vetoed a spending bill with 8,500 such earmarks. Billions have been dispensed, ad hoc, to various financial houses, businesses and sectors while, at the same time, Obama has presented expensive new health-care, education and energy proposals which have little to do with immediate recovery. Although Obama still talks of bipartisan cooperation, his substantive proposals have been framed in such a way that they simply will not attract Republican and independent support.
To use a common analogy, Obama has not directed a powerful, focused stream of water on an economic house on fire. Instead, he has directed a weaker and more diffuse stream toward the house, garage, yard, alley behind, and vacant lot next door.
Can we expect more of the same? Too soon to tell.
Our presidents traditionally fumble early in their terms. In recent history we remember John F. Kennedy's stumbles into the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam; Lyndon Johnson's deepening of the Vietnam commitment; Jimmy Carter's hapless conflict with the U.S. Corps of Engineers; Bill Clinton's bog-downs over gays in the military, the White House travel office, and a BTU tax; and George W. Bush's infamous ceding of Iraq policy to Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. Franklin Roosevelt's first 100 days were busy but many of his early initiatives turned out not to work and had to be abandoned. His first big achievement, Social Security, did not occur until two years later.
It was Obama's ill fortune to take office when financial/economic troubles all were far advanced. He still enjoys broad public support, though not at historic levels. His intellect is just as strong now as it was when he was elected in November. He deserves the benefit of the doubt in his break-in period.
One thing should not be forgotten. This is Obama's first experience at running anything of consequence. His experience as a Chicago community organizer, Illinois state senator, and U.S. Senator exposed him to various public issues. But it did not prepare him for executive leadership, which he must now exert. He clearly must regain control both of his agenda and staff.
The latter are sending him out daily to deliver a new teleprompter message — always on a different subject. Quite soon he must prioritize his initiatives. Our economic distress is not, as Emanuel has said, an "opportunity" to jam unrelated policy initiatives through the Congress. It presents, rather, an obligation which Obama must meet before he does anything else. If, down the road, we enter recovery, then a grateful electorate will be ready to consider any other initiatives he presents to them. If, however, his efforts toward recovery are perceived as failing, he will be unable to accomplish anything else.
I'm still betting on Obama. But he needs to get the One Big Thing, economic recovery, right before he tries a lot of other things.