President Barack Obama's 100-day "honeymoon period" ends Wednesday and, in a departure from previous custom, will be celebrated by the President with a major speech and observances. Despite our continuing economic troubles, the Obama White House will enter May with measured optimism which appears to be shared by a majority of the American people.
At the state level, the Legislature has closed an anticipated $9 billion deficit (through mid-2011) with federal money, some genuine cuts, and sleight of hand shifts which will help short term but postpone painful taxing and spending decisions until the next budget cycle. Some of the "cuts" simply represent spending increases which will be deferred. But others are real and will hit some of our most vulnerable citizens. There will be no celebratory observances.
Looking forward on various fronts: The Obama administration has benefited from a large reservoir of goodwill in its first months in office. Its public approval remains healthy. Nonetheless, opinion both in the Congress and the country has become politically polarized and the prospect of bipartisan cooperation is slim on Obama's health-care and energy proposals in particular. The Democrats' stimulus package and budgets were passed on a party-line basis. Many Democrats will be hard to persuade when the particulars of health-care and energy legislation become clear, thus making it difficult to get 60 Senate votes, to cut off debate, or even simple majorities for that legislation.
Cap-and-trade energy proposals, for instance, are likely to be challenged by Democrats from coal, oil, and natural-gas producing states. Health legislation will have a better chance but no more than a 50-50 prospect of enactment in 2009.
The financial and economic climate will have much to do with the failure or success of the overall Obama program. If financial markets keep creeping upward, and if the economic downturn's end appears in sight (most economists now predict that to happen early in 2010), the administration will maintain public approval and, therefore, political leverage. If that is not the case, all bets are off.
Thursday is decision day for Chrysler. Almost certainly, that company will go into either a government-managed or formal bankruptcy. Either way jobs and benefits will be lost, dealerships closed, and product lines sold or discontinued. Much larger General Motors' decision day will come later in the spring. Additional billions of tax dollars will need to be committed, no matter what course the auto-rescue effort takes.
Sometime in the next few days the Treasury will make public the results of its so-called "stress tests" of the country's biggest banks. (The banks themselves got the word several days ago). That will separate viable from endangered banks and help the feds decide which need further tax dollars to keep them in business. Financial markets are likely to pass hard judgment on those deemed weakest. The idea of bailing the banks, and other financial institutions, was to thaw the credit freeze that has beset the U.S. economy. Yet there has been a Catch-22 involved in all of this. The banks are being pressed by the feds to strengthen their balance sheets. In order to do this, most have had to cut back all but the most creditworthy loans.
The outcome of the auto and financial bailouts could affect public opinion beyond their tax-dollar implications. Populist anger will be fueled if the public costs seem excessive. It already is high because of the seeming insensitivity and sense of entitlement by financial and corporate leaders who contributed to the mess. A front-page story in Sunday's New York Times, for example, reported that six of the biggest financial firms receiving federal help — Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, JPMorgan Investment Bank, and Bank of America — will spend the same on employee compensation this year as they did before the financial crisis. At Morgan Stanley, 68 percent of total revenues will go to compensation; the average pay per employee at Goldman will be $569,000 this year.
Ironically, the obituary section of the same paper carried news of the death of Louis Lowenstein, a Columbia University business-law professor and onetime powerhouse in a major New York business-law firm. Lowenstein had crusaded outspokenly about the greed and arrogance of Wall Street firms.
Even larger uncertainties are to be found about events in places of vital interest to the United States. In Iraq, Sunnis have instituted suicide and other bombings against the Shiite majority, protesting what they see as probable Shiite dominance of the country upon the departure of U.S. troops. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week paid a quick visit to Baghdad to assure the government, and all political factions, that the United States would not leave Iraq in chaos.
She also conceded, in a remarkably candid public statement, that the security situation in Pakistan was becoming perilous. The current Pakistan government is weak and corrupt and has tried to buy peace with Islamic fundamentalists by letting them run territories within the country. The fundamentalists, not surprisingly, have responded by extending their territorial reach and undertaking terrorism in and near the capital of Islamabad.
The Pak intelligence service, for many years, has subsidized and collaborated with the fundamentalists. The Pak army continues to mass its forces on the Indian border rather than undertaking unpleasant operations against the fundamentalists. If the Taliban should seize power in Pakistan, they would possess nuclear weapons. They already are raiding NATO supply stations, near the Afghan border, with impunity. U.S. options are limited. The dispatch of U.S. troops to Pakistan would not be tolerated here or in Pakistan. Already, the growing U.S. presence in Afghanistan is drawing political fire here.
At the same time, North Korea is daring the West to take action against its restarted nuclear program. Iran also is sticking to its path toward nuclear capability and, increasingly, involving itself in internal Iraqi affairs. Israel has threatened to take unilateral action, if necessary, to protect itself against an Iranian nuclear threat. A Middle East settlement is not in the near-term picture.
In all of this, it would be easy to mock Obama's "Yes We Can" approach to policymaking. Easy, but wrong. Were it not for Obama's optimism and faith in his own agenda, we would be in far worse condition than we are at the end of his first 100 days.