Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Obama's First 100 Days: Restoring the Good Name of the U.S.

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

The media's obsession with grading Barack Obama's first 100 days in office amuses me. Sure, in calmer times, maybe it was reasonable to look at a new administration after a little more than three months and try and figure out what kind of presidency the country was in for. But even George W. Bush waited until August 2001 to severely limit when federal money could be used to fund stem cell research, planting his flag in the ground as a leader who would try and impose his religious beliefs (and lack of respect for science) on the nation.

But given the situation Obama inherited when he took over the Oval Office in January, the 100 days figure is particularly silly. After all, in 100 days you can't make a human being from scratch, play a baseball season, or even choose an American Idol. But after 100 days, the media wants to know if Obama has been able to clean up the laundry list of ills left to him by Bush. It's not a short menu, either: an unnecessary and damaging war that was launched with no plan for a resolution, a second war that was headed in the wrong direction thanks to Bush's obsession with the unnecessary war, the potential of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of the Taliban, an economy hemorrhaging jobs and creating challenging conditions for a big chunk of Americans, a soaring home foreclosure rate, a plummeting stock market (at the time of Obama's inauguration), a severely damaged financial system that was in danger of bringing the world's economy down, a melting planet, an energy policy (or lack thereof) that threatened the country's economy and national security, and a health-care system that allows tens of millions of Americans to go through life with no medical care, just to hit some highlights.

Oh, and Obama is supposed to solve these problems despite the fact that the Republicans, who have enough votes in the Senate to filibuster legislation, are intellectually bankrupt, with no new ideas to offer beyond "less taxes and less regulation," and who have crafted an identity solely based on opposing whatever Obama says or tries to do. (At this point, with the Republicans acting like bratty children, I am waiting for Obama to make use of the playground anti-mimicking trick of employing reverse psychology and announcing that he is in favor of the Republicans disagreeing with his policies, so that the knee-jerk GOP members will support him, just to be contrary.) And, to be fair, it's not like the members of Congress in his own party have always been supportive, often putting their parochial interests in front of Obama's national agenda (the set of ideas that led the American people to vote him into office by a landslide).

So the task awaiting Obama was massive. And yet, there is a rush to decide how he's doing after 100 days. He doesn't even have all his cabinet members in place yet, after all (partially his fault, but partially thanks to the petty delaying tactics of the Republicans).

Personally, while I can't say I have agreed with each and every decision Obama has made since taking office, on the whole, I think what he has accomplished in the first 100 days is remarkable. He ushered a nearly $1 trillion stimulus plan into law in record time, reversed a flood of reactionary Bush executive orders (including on stem cell research), and, in his budget, made clear that he wants priorities such as health care, green energy and education to be addressed. But despite my support for his work, I refuse on principal to give him a grade. It's just not fair. Donnie Walsh gets two years to revive the Knicks, but the president only gets 100 days to fix the country? (Granted, after Isiah Thomas gets done with an organization, it is a miracle if it still exists at all.)

But there is one area in which Obama has made such a dent in an awful Bush legacy, I will make an exception to my rule and hand out a grade. And it wasn't even an item on my list of debacles Obama inherited from Bush. But, in a way, it encompasses all of these items.

For all of the failures, embarrassments and acts of destruction of the Bush administration, in some ways, none was worse than the damage he did to the American identity. Bush showed utter disregard for the constitution and completely belittled the idea that America stands for justice and due process. And his arrogant attitude toward the world was counterproductive, leaving the United States isolated at a time when it most needed help. Between the invasion of Iraq, the torturing of prisoners, the illegal wiretapping, the outing of a CIA agent, the politicization of the Justice Department, the appointing of incompetent cronies to government positions (like the immortal "Brownie"), the castration of agencies meant to serve the public in an all-encompassing protection of business interests (like the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission testifying to Congress that she opposed funding for more inspectors after it was discovered that toys made in China contained lead paint), and the handing out of government money to businesses in which administration officials had interests (sometimes via no-bid contracts), the Bush administration had tarnished everything that was great about the United States of America. He took a country we could be proud of, a country that strove to meet a higher standard, and tossed us into the gutter. Looking at the pictures from Abu Ghraib or reading the accounts from Guantanamo, it was hard to believe that we were looking at the actions of the U.S. government. That's not the America I was taught about in school.

(As an aside, I am not an end-justifies-the-mean guy, so even if Bush's repugnant policies made us safer, I would object. But we didn't even get that benefit. As we've learned again and again from the men responsible for interrogations, torture doesn't work, and Bush's policies, from the Iraq invasion -- with its human and financial costs -- to Guantanamo, created more terrorists and national security risks than they prevented.)

In his first 100 days, Obama has taken decisive action to show the world that the great side of America, the America that stands for justice and due process, the America that respects the rights of individuals, and the America that has served as an example and destination for people around the world, is trying to come back. Obama's appointments chose competence and expertise over cronyism. He reversed Bush's torture policies and released the completely bogus memos written to justify them. He announced early on that he would close Guantanamo and that we would withdraw from Iraq. He changed the tone of how we speak to our friends and enemies, showing that keeping an open mind is not the same as being weak. He instituted policies that sought to add transparency to government. And, most of all, he showed that he was a smart and competent leader, something that has been absent for the previous eight years.

In the subject area of acting to restore pride in America, I am willing to give Obama a grade: A.

Granted, there have been missteps. He was too slow to embrace the idea of prosecuting those who justified and approved of torture, for example. But when you consider the depths to which Bush had plunged the country in this regard, and the short period of time (the much ballyhooed 100 days) Obama has had to reverse the course of the nation, his achievement in this area has been quick, decisive and productive. He has proven that hope is more than just a poster. Or, as a friend of mine put it, it's nice to know a grown-up is back in charge.

Hopefully when the true final examination comes around in November 2012, and Obama's presidency is evaluated after ample time has gone by for his policies and decisions to be analyzed, he will fare as well. For the sake of the country, I hope he does. But for now, he's off to a pretty good start, even if it is only 100 days.