The First 100 Days: Grading President Obama

by Benjamin Domenech on 2:14 pm April 29, 2009

After the first 100 days of his administration, Editors, Friends and Colleagues of The New Ledger grade the President’s performance on foreign policy, domestic policy, and meeting the extraordinary expectations of his supporters.

Pejman Yousefzadeh

[I] I am hesitant to offer the President a letter grade, if only because I think that the 100 day mark is an arbitrary and a capricious one. Even if it weren’t, 100 days is not nearly enough to grade a President who will get nearly 1600 in his first term (how neat is the almost-synchronicity between the number of days in a President’s term and the number corresponding to the address of the White House). Let’s give the President an “incomplete.”

However, I won’t pretend not to be distressed by the continual efforts to expand government beyond all heretofore accepted bounds, the fake calls for bipartisanship that spring from the White House while Republicans are shunted to the side whenever legislative deliberations are afoot, the yawning gap between promises of transparency and their realization, and the Pavlovian need to blame all bad things on the Bush Administration–a need that exists alongside a compulsion to offer apologies left, right, and center in international conferences for America’s perceived sins. Speaking of that last issue, one wonders, of course, why it is that other countries are never seen apologizing to us. We are not perfect, but they aren’t either. Where is their remorse for sins real or imagined? Where are their expressions of regret? And why is it that we are the ones compelled to fill the air with perfunctory, ceremonial apologies for supposed wrongs that are never fully–or even partially–defined? We fool ourselves into thinking that we will win any kind of real approbation by offering these statements of remorse. Quite contrary; those to whom we compulsively apologize pocket our regret, wield it at appropriate moments, and use it to demand further reparations in the form of policy compromises.

This Administration has a lot to learn about governmental humility, genuine bipartisanship, and the proper use of American power and prestige overseas. If it doesn’t learn them soon, it will and should get grades low enough to make “incomplete” seem like an invitation to join Phi Beta Kappa. And it will get them from people far more influential than mere scribblers like me.

Pejman Yousefzadeh is a Senior Editor of The New Ledger.

Jennifer Rubin

[D] I would give President Obama a C-. On the positive side he has continued the Bush Iraq policy, renounced his foolish protectionists rhetoric and begun to construct a viable plan for success in Afghanistan. And the dog is cute. All else is grim. On the domestic front, such non-conservatives as David Brooks, Alice Rivlin and the editors of the Washington Post attest to the dangerous irresponsibility of his fiscal policy. He has helped popularize the phrase “generational theft” — and it will take generations to dig us out of the mess. His plans domestically on everything from healthcare to cap and trade to education bespeak a statist, bureaucratic mindset that is unsuited to a free and dynamic society.

On foreign policy, excepting those areas outlined above, he is practicing a dangerous and unproductive brand of Jimmy Carterism, and in an unseemly fashion not seen even under Carter has attempted to bond with the world in their mutual anti-Americanism. Moreover, I would be hard pressed to think of a more destructive and unintelligible policy than he moves to release CIA interrogation memos to our enemies and (sort of) raise the prospect of criminalizing the good faith efforts of the prior administration to prevent a second 9-11. One final note: his continual digs and snide references to former President Bush and his press maneuver to smear individual members of the media suggest a meanness of spirit and dangerous bunker mentality unbecoming of a White House, especially one premised on “change.”

Come to think of it, make it a “D.”

Jennifer Rubin is a contributor to Commentary.

Paul Bonicelli

[F] On Foreign Policy, President Obama has managed in a mere 100 days to make us less respected by friends and enemies alike. In international affairs, and in the sovereign state system, the context is Machiavelli’s: it is better to be feared than loved. The United States and no other state will ever be “loved,” in any case, by other competitors or potential competitors. There is only power that ultimatly arbitrates among world actors, and in his first 100 days in office, President Obama has materially and figuratively diminished our power. In the former case by cutting back on our defense budget (as if the only conflicts that await us in the future will be like those in Iraq and Afghanistan) and by attacking the source of our national strength, capitalism — and in the latter case by trying so very hard to be liked by everyone, up to and including accepting public humiliation from dictators (such as Chavez, Ortega and Ahmadinejad) and by bowing and scraping to an autocrat. We are less respected under him because he thinks he’s running a unit of a global egalitarian collective instead the head of a soveriegn state that exists in a veritable state of nature. On Domestic Policy, the president is pushing the nation toward more disrespect for life, more statism and corporatism, and more reliance on celebrity/paternalistic govenment. He’s far more popular than his policies, and for good reason: he’s becoming Carter on steroids, with fewer scruples and less attachment to great Anglo-American traditions, and he’s able to get away with it because the public is more sheepish, immature, foolish than they’ve ever been.

Paul Bonicelli is the former Assistant Administrator for Latin America at USAID.

Dan McLaughlin

[O] I give him an “O” because it’s always all about the O.

Obama can’t reasonably be graded, by any historical standard, as anything but incomplete in terms of policies enacted through the end of April. But as the orgasmic coverage of his 100th day in office illustrates, such banalities as legislation and results are largely beside the point in discussing the man’s public image.

That said, Obama’s window of opportunity to accomplish his core goal – restructure American politics to premanently entrench the left end of the political spectrum in power – won’t last forever, which in turn raises the stakes for his need to do just that to keep his hold on power. Even judging him solely on his image, Obama has had to increasingly drop the mask he had adopted of being a ‘post-partisan’ figure, a reformer, a fiscal moderate or any sort of hawk. I can’t think that even the Republicans will be so inept as to fail to remind the electorate on a regular basis that the man looked the nation in the eye in two consecutive nationally televised debates and promised a net spending cut, then turned around and made his first priority a massive expansion of federal spending to levels not seen since World War II. The “O” may be enough to sustain a popular public image for months or even years to come, but sooner or later the public will come to associate the popular president with unpopular policies, corrupt and incompetent administration and broken promises. Either image or reality will have to give. Your faith in human nature will determine which you expect to win out.

Dan McLaughlin is an attorney in New York City.

Francis Cianfrocca

[A] After his first 100 days as President, Barack Obama earns an A for ambition. He’s shown a passivity bordering on impatience for the minutiae of policy and government, a love bordering on unseemliness for the trappings of power and privilege, and a confidence bordering on hubris in the ability of his regime to fundamentally remake American life. He intends to produce near-universal health care coverage. He wants to transform our energy sources from carbon-based to wind and solar. He plans to largely federalize the content and delivery of education. And he wants to elevate public service in the esteem of the people, above that of private business. The scope of his dreams is beyond audacious. Breathtaking would be a better word. For him to achieve even a fraction of this, he’ll need to convince Americans that they want it as badly as he does, badly enough to pay for it. And we’re talking about some real pain here. His plans are far too big to pay for by borrowing from the Chinese.

Francis Cianfrocca is a Senior Editor of The New Ledger.

Peter Lawler

[B] Surely the new president should be judged according to the objectives he’s set for himself and not those I (and others on the losing team) would set for him. He has restored some confidence in the competent leadership of the president, and that fact alone has contributed to stabilizing the economy. In foreign policy, his humble rhetoric has won him friends, sometimes at the price of respect, but so far continuity trumps change concerning what we’re doing on the ground. In domestic policy, nobody should be surprised that he’s exploiting the economic crisis to achieve lasting, realigning “regime change” in the direction of Europeanization, unfortunately at a time when the American differences are increasingly to our advantage. His rather tyrannical cultural leftism has yet to make its influence felt in any big way.

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and a member of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics.

Joseph M. Knippenberg

[D] In grading Barack Obama’s first 100 days, I have to borrow a page from longtime Harvard government professor Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., at one time known to his students as Harvey “C-“ Mansfield, Jr. In a concession to rampant grade inflation, Professor Mansfield took to giving two grades—the Harvard grade (which would appear on the student’s transcript) and the real grade (which is what the student had actually earned). Since Barack Obama is in so many ways the product of the grade-inflated Ivy League, I feel like I’m entitled to adopt Professor Mansfield’s approach.

President Obama’s “Harvard grade” is a B+, which indicates only that he hasn’t yet failed and that, politically, his record is not out of the ordinary. Polling data suggests that his popularity is basically average for presidents early in their first term. He and his fellow Democrats have won some battles in Congress, which is to be expected, given their control of both chambers. He has promised to spend a lot of money to bail various folks out, but hasn’t (thankfully, as far as I’m concerned) yet succeeded in enacting any genuinely transformative or epoch-making legislation. He passed his first foreign policy pop quiz, making the right call in dealing with the Somali pirates, but impressed only the easily impressed Harvard faculty in his meetings with counterparts in Europe and Latin America: that is, he told my colleagues at Harvard (and his colleagues in Europe and Latin America) pretty much what they wanted to hear.

His real grade is another story. He came into office promising to be post-partisan and meaning to be genuinely transformative in taking advantage of our economic straits. The polling data suggests, however, that his is an exceptionally polarizing Administration, and his proposals have galvanized the Republican opposition—with the exception of those, like Senator Arlen Spector (R, no D-PA), who see no personal political advantage in being galvanized. For those who wish to see it, the veil is off and President Obama has shown himself to be a not particularly imaginative standard-issue liberal Democrat. This is “C” work at best.

Professors take two approaches to dealing with new college students (we used to call them freshmen, but the preferred term seems now to be first-year students). We can either lay down the law early on, let them know they’re in the big leagues, and “scare” them into making the mental adjustments and working hard. Or we can gently encourage them, taking into account that they’re new at this and that it will be some time before they’re capable of genuine college-level work. With President Obama, I’m inclined to take the first approach, since the margin of error is minuscule.

With that in mind, I have to say that his Administration’s stumbling start bespeaks a very steep learning curve and a group not as ready for prime time as they thought themselves to be. Staffing and nomination failures—doesn’t anyone pay taxes any more?—should not be indulged. Gaffes—remember the “reset button,” and who could forget the Manhattan flyover?—are unbecoming of this bunch of Ivy Leaguers. President Obama also needs to be held accountable for his inconsistency and apparent hypocrisy when it comes to transparency and high ethical standards. He could fool the easily (or willfully) fooled, but everyone else knew that expertise and connections are inextricably connected with the revolving door he so loudly deprecated. And while he allegedly has pledged transparency for his Administration and demanded accountability of the corporations he has chosen to bail out, he’s apparently unwilling to ask very much of his allies in the labor unions.

Finally, there’s leadership, most emphatically not displayed by giving the Democratic Congressional leadership an essentially free hand in drafting the centerpiece of the Obama Administration’s economic recovery efforts. The old hands on Capitol Hill appear to be eating the new kid’s lunch.

In the end, I feel compelled to give President Obama a real “D” thus far. His pretty words don’t show much original or deep thought. His organizational and leadership skills are not yet very well-developed. He will have some things he will be able to call successes. The economy, for example, will eventually recover, perhaps in spite of his best efforts. And he has the majorities in Congress to win legislative victories.

But I am increasingly (and thankfully) dubious of the proposition that Barack Obama is a 21st Century FDR. If he is, it will be the result more of Republican failures than of his genuine accomplishments.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University, Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, and Contributing Editor of The City.

Brian Reich

[I] Everything has changed! Nothing has changed!

I gave up on the prospect that anything productive would come from the White House or Congress a long time ago. There is simply too much politics that gets in the way. Our elected leaders don’t seem to be in the business of making real change. They talk about change all the time. They have big ideas for how to fix the problems in our society. Congress passes laws and the President (along with his administration) promotes initiatives that identify the important issues that need to be addressed. Not much happens. Real change is hard to come by.

Then Barack Obama arrived.

In his first 100 days as president, Barack Obama has changed the tone in Washington. Instead of lamenting the challenges that we face or defending an agenda that has failed, our new president has promoted big ideas and bold legislation. Rather than play politics with every utterance to the press or meeting on Capitol Hill, the president actually seems to be focused on making things happen, and leading the country by example. He talks about the economy in frank terms, acknowledging that we are facing tough times and admitting when his policies need improvement. He talks about climate change in frank terms, placing the appropriate urgency on addressing an issue that almost everyone realizes we can no longer ignore. He talks about education, and foreign policy, and national service in frank terms that most politicians wouldn’t dare. Most importantly, he has prioritized the need for openness, and communications, transparency and participation – by pushing information to the web, taking questions from the public, and releasing information from past administrations that will help us understand how and why he is making the choices he is making on tough issues. In short, everything has changed.

At the same time, 100 days into this new administration, this president seems to be acting very much like the presidents who came before him. The economy is still struggling and the approach the government has taken is, largely, the same as the one the previous administration had taken. The groundbreaking legislation that the president has urged Congress to pass has, with a few notable exceptions, proceeded along partisan lines. Real progress on climate change, healthcare, education, and other important priorities – while still very much possible – seems just as far off as it did before Obama took office. And, the communications that the White House (and supporting organizations, like Organizing For America) have pushed have been increasingly guarded of late, as the scrutiny and criticism of this administration’s every move seems to grow more intense. In short, nothing has changed.

100 days is not enough time to measure the success of a president’s term so my thoughts are either premature or incomplete. I remain very confident that this president will both change the way government operates and over time the way our society functions. I know that looking back in the future, we’ll see real improvements in the healthcare, education, climate change and other policies and practices of this nation, beginning with work this president made happen. There is a lot of good stuff still to come, and plenty of time to make it all happen. At the same time, when Barack Obama came into office I started to believe again. A little part of me though that the government we would have leading our nation would be different, right from the start, and there would be no looking back. My expectations for what this president could accomplish, or would try to undertake, right out of the gate have not been met and must now be adjusted. Politics still reigns in Washington and nobody, including President Obama, is immune from having to play by their rules. I’ll be interested to see how things look in another 100 days.

Brian Reich is a new media strategist and technologist.

Benjamin Domenech

[C-] I don’t believe in evaluating President Obama against the false expectations of perfection his followers set for him — arguably the highest expectations (Have the oceans stopped rising? Didn’t he promise they would?) we’ve seen in the modern era. Nor do I believe in evaluating him against the perfect president from an ideological perspective, whether right or left, because I continue to believe that President Obama essentially has no ideology.

So leaving out policy and ideological disagreements, and absent the unrealistically high bar set by his grassroots following, — or the laughably insane expectations of, say, Doug Kmiec — what grade should Obama’s First 100 Days receive? In my view, a C- … acceptable, but just below the average. His popularity is less than one might expect given the historical averages, but this young President has faced a bevy of challenges in his first few months in office much weightier than those of any president since Reagan, and his response to them has been acceptable and professional, but thus far, hardly game changing or impactful for the better.

Obama has shown a lack of restraint in some areas — most notably in failing to meet his economic promises for restrained spending, instead unleashing a tidal wave of unrestricted pork barrel projects; he has not yet met his promise for openness in government, allowing Congressional allies to shove through massive bills that the public and the press had mere hours to review; he commanded his Education Secretary to bow to the wishes of teachers’ unions in destroying one of the most promising school choice programs in the nation in Washington, DC, after children had already been accepted for next year; and his proposed tax hike on charitable giving, criticized by many Democrats, has just been a shockingly bad idea poorly executed, yet he continues to stubbornly defend it.

But in other areas, Obama has resisted the calls from his more vocal leftward supporters for playing games of political payback or forcing through extreme social policy. His stem cell policy has “startled” those who accused the prior administration of being relentlessly anti-science; despite pressure, he has not taken any significant steps to back away from his moderate stance on same sex marriage; he has not kowtowed to the left in rolling back national security protections here at home; and abroad, he has pursued a strategy in Afghanistan that is centrist and responsible, and not without challenge or risk. He is taking these positions when his approval ratings are high, and we shall have to see if he maintains them if his support dwindles.

I would give him a C, all things considered. But the minus comes from the failures of being green: for a man whose campaign was so smoothly run, his presidency has been surprisingly full of gaffes, the most public being of the diplomatic or staff vetting variety, though I would include the laughable “let’s cut $100 million” idea and the clumsy release of the interrogation memos last week as an example. He seems very raw and unpolished in many respects. One of the reasons George W. Bush failed as a president was that he promised professionalism in all aspects of government, implying that after the rowdy Clinton years, the adults would be in charge — and instead, we ended up with “heckuva job, Brownie.” 100 days in, in many ways, this administration shows the potential for a repeat of this mistep. We shall see what Obama does when he has his legs under him.

Benjamin Domenech is Editor in Chief of The New Ledger.

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