Jonathan Alter Describes How Obama Can Make Most of His 100 Days

January 20th, 2009

Points on the Board
How Obama can score in the first 100 days.

Jonathan Alter
NEWSWEEK

Nearly every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has loathed the idea of the “hundred days,” and Barack Obama is no exception. The concept, first used to encapsulate the time elapsed between Napoleon's return from exile on the isle of Elba and his final defeat at the battle of Waterloo, is handy but artificial. Roosevelt provided its present meaning when he noticed that the special session of Congress he called in 1933 had lasted that long. It was a way for him to pat himself on the back.

John F. Kennedy tried to lower expectations in his Inaugural Address by saying that his goals could not be met in “a thousand days” (the title of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s memoir of the period) or even in “our lifetime on this planet.” It didn't matter. The nice round number—100—was like gum on the shoe of presidential newbies. Barack Obama and his people have tried to win a longer time horizon; they prefer to be judged on year one. But even that reflects an understanding that, in this game, most scoring takes place in the first quarter.

From a legislative perspective, 2009 could prove to be another 1933, 1965 (Lyndon Johnson) or 1981 (Ronald Reagan). These are seismic times. The stimulus package, which the Obamanians insist be called the “recovery” package, will almost certainly pass just before Presidents' Day and with bipartisan support. The more liberals complain in the next few weeks that it's too small and contains too many tax cuts, the more centrist Obama will look. The era of big government spending is back, and practically everyone's cool with it, even Reagan's top economists. That is the measure of our fear. Nobody knows if this contraption will work, but nobody can think of anything else to do.

It's mind-blowing, but we're about to have spent $1.5 trillion extra in just five months. That's the combined price tag of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP)—pushed through last fall when Henry Paulson cried fire, and fully understood by only about three or four Wall Street geeks—and Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan (ARRP), which will contain no earmarks but plenty of “green pork” (how appetizing): projects that get funded because they have some connection to energy. As you read this, hundreds of billions of dollars are being tossed around by Obama folks who still aren't sure which jobs they'll hold, much less where to find the bathroom.

The story of this year might be how TARP and ARRP ate Washington. But ailing banks, car companies and state governments trying to avoid laying off teachers and kicking poor people aren't the only ones who could use some cash. Let's say you think it's a matter of life and death that Obama fulfill his promise to double funding for cancer research. Or you're counting on his commitment to early-childhood education. Right now you're seriously worried. If funding for your cause is not deemed worthy of inclusion in the recovery package (whether because it's not temporary enough or stimulative enough), you have good reason to wonder if the money will be available later on, when we're staring down the barrel of trillion-dollar deficits.

Fortunately, there's a plan for what to do with the rest of the first 100 days. We just don't know it yet because the Obama people are so damn disciplined. It will likely involve setting the table for big changes in energy and health-care policy with bills boosting renewable energy and extending health-insurance coverage to children (which passed the House last week). Obama will soon assume his role as educator in chief with the televised discussions he promised during the campaign. The press will predictably say these wonkfests are for show, and it'll be half right. While the real deal will go down, as always, in private, these sessions will help Obama build public support for his program.

With his hands full implementing the recovery plan (it isn't easy spending all that money wisely) and dealing with global flashpoints, Obama will probably delay introducing his big new energy and health plans until summer at the earliest. Some deadlines loom. The successor to the Kyoto summit on climate change takes place in December in Copenhagen. The United States will be embarrassed to attend that conference without a cap-and-trade system or other major carbon tax as part of a comprehensive energy policy. Health-care reform, now mostly the province of Tom Daschle, Ted Kennedy, Max Baucus and Ron Wyden, may be closer than the skeptics think. For all the obstacles, opposition is splintered.

Even the most auspicious debut won't remain unsullied. In 1933 Congress rejected Roosevelt's first bill regulating Wall Street. The new president slashed veterans' benefits 50 percent, and the publicity was so bad that he had to rescind many of the cuts. His threat to veto any bill containing bank-deposit insurance proved empty. But Roosevelt nonetheless succeeded brilliantly in his first 100 days. He kept throwing ideas against the wall to see what stuck. He pushed his subordinates to deliver and stop making excuses. When all his aides said we cannot create a Civilian Conservation Corps, he said yes, we can.

The reason Barack Obama has good odds for a successful 2009 is that he understands that the most important words in FDR's first Inaugural Address were that the nation needed “action, and action now.” And so we do again.