Saturday, January 31, 2009

An Early Report Card on Obama: B+

Some of Obama’s personality traits that benefited him in the primaries and the general election — his cool, calm demeanor, his reflective, controlled response to questions, his effort to straddle the middle and build consensus — are still benefiting him. He does not seem to get rattled despite unforeseen developments. In contrast to his immediate predecessor who almost always mangled words in his remarks and often did not seem to have a clear focus or direction, Obama speaks well if sometimes haltingly and he seems to stay on message most of the time.

But despite all the hoopla leading up to his inauguration, I think some of the magic that surrounded him to that point has slipped away. His poll approval ratings remain strong, and that is good. He will need high ratings to carry him through his singularly most important task, guiding the government and the nation through this incredibly wretched economic collapse.

I did not find his inaugural address inspiring. In contrast to the soaring rhetoric and cadenced style he had brought to bear on frequent occasions during the election process, I found his inaugural delivery, particularly the first half that was focused on the economy, to be a bit lackluster. He was too matter of fact and his speaking lacked uplifting emotion. Perhaps he purposefully intended not to bring his charisma to bear but I found it disappointing. He seemed to regain his stride in the second half of his address, where he focused on foreign affairs, and at its conclusion. But overall I was disappointed.

After months of sharing the spotlight with the outgoing president and making a point that there can only be one president at a time, to his credit Obama hit the ground running upon assuming office. He and his staff obviously had prepared the groundwork to issue various executive orders on issues such as closing Gitmo, the use of funds in international programs which provide birth control assistance, and limiting lobbyists in his Administration. He also quickly signed his first piece of legislation which overturned a Supreme Court decision that had imposed a very restrictive statute of limitations on wage discrimination claims. And he has kept himself in the public eye day after day talking about the need for a government stimulus package and seeking to bring Republicans on board in support of his favored legislation.

But there have been enough unanticipated distractions, some of which should have been anticipated, that, while not derailing Obama’s ambitious plans, have slowed them down and caused concerns. Not in any particular order, Obama’s designation for secretary of commerce, Governor Bill Richardson, was forced to withdraw from consideration because of an ongoing investigation of possible wrongdoing. He had made a splash and earned the enmity of the Clintons and many of Hillary’s supporters when he opted to support Obama rather than Clinton after he ended his own campaign for the nomination. He, like Senator Kerry, seemed to covet the secretary of state position but it turned out he couldn’t even survive the nominating process to become secretary of commerce. This was a personal flame out for Richardson but also a mark against Obama’s transition team for not having better gauged the seriousness of, and acted earlier on, the matter. Next Obama and his team had to weather the mini-scandal surrounding Timothy Geithner, initially seemingly everyone’s pick for secretary of the treasury, after it emerged that Geithner had failed to pay certain payroll taxes until after he had been picked for Obama’s cabinet or shortly before. Instead of cruising into office as a consensus All-American, Geithner won Senate approval but only after many had remarked about his bad judgment and the irony that in his new position he will oversee the Internal Revenue Service. This was another black and blue mark for the Obama team and its leader. The latest pratfall involves Tom Daschle, Obama’s pick for secretary of health and human services, who apparently recently filed amended tax returns to report $128,000 in back taxes and roughly $12,000 in interest. Daschle apparently failed to report income from the use of a car service provided him by a friend and business associate as well as income from consulting.

Rather than the agent of change, Obama has appeared to be the ‘same old same old’ Washington politician when it has come to the selection of his cabinet. Whether these embarrassments have been the result of poor vetting on the part of Obama’s transition team or poor judgment on the part of the nominees, or both, they run the risk of bringing Obama back down to earth too early in his Administration.

Obama’s idealism has also taken a beating in the area of lobbyists in government. Obama issued an executive order on day one establishing strict rules intended to bar former lobbyists from joining Obama’s Administration to work at agencies they recently lobbied. No sooner had the order been promulgated than exceptions were being made, first at the Department of Defense where William Lynn was chosen as deputy secretary of defense after having served at Raytheon, a major defense supplier, and then at the department of the treasury, where a former Goldman Sachs lobbyist, Mark Patterson, was being chosen as chief of staff to Geithner. Several Obama aides apparently justified the exception for Lynn on the ground that he was “uniquely qualified” for the job. But wasn’t that the same rationale Obama used to justify his continued support for Geithner after his failure to pay taxes came to light? What exactly does “uniquely qualified” mean anyway? It suggests that no one else could do the job better. And that, as we all know, is hogwash. More importantly, the cynics have already started to criticize Obama for failing to live up to the standards he just set within a week of his setting them.

Obama’s effort to put in place a major stimulus package by mid-February, while still on target, is suffering from the limits to bipartisanship. The President has shown strong leadership not only in remaining focused on obtaining a stimulus package but also in making major overtures to the Republican minority in an effort to craft a bipartisan approach. He should be commended for this effort. Indeed, he may still succeed in obtaining considerable Republican support for a Senate stimulus bill. But the first vote in the House was completely along partisan lines. No Republicans voted for the measure. Even ten Democrats dissented. And many feel the bill was too much the product of the very partisan House Democrats, filled with earmarks and funds for activities that would questionably stimulate the economy in short order.

Obama may be in danger of losing momentum on the stimulus effort. He must again get out in front of the legislation, assure that the ultimate legislation is not merely a vehicle for the advancement of Democratic Party interests, and try to build a currently non-existent consensus that the mixture of tax reductions and government spending in the final legislation is the best way to quickly stimulate the economy. Obama cannot afford to see this project get bogged down in legislative horse trading or fall prey to withering debate on the relative merits of greater tax cuts versus public works expenditures. He must hammer out terms with a coalition of Democratic and Republican senators and then have the Democratic majority in the House pass it if no Republicans there will support it. If the bill represents a bipartisan effort in the Senate continued full scale Republican opposition in the House will matter less.

Obama began with bold steps on the international front, appointing two talented negotiators as his special envoys to the Middle East and Afghanistan. The President also projected a fresh image of America in its relationships abroad by placing his first telephone call to a foreign leader to Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, and offering his first television interview to Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned cable network. These were positive steps done in a decisive manner. Unfortunately, heavy lifting follows. Obama will need to figure out what to do with those held at Gitmo as he moves forward in closing the base. And Obama will have the even more challenging task of designing America’s approach toward Afghanistan in an effort to strength opposition to the Taliban and stabilize the region without turning Afghanistan into his Iraq.

Overall, I give Obama a B+ to date. He has acted with relative clarity, decisiveness and boldness in his first ten or eleven days in office. At the same time, problems with those he has nominated to his cabinet, a less than uplifting inaugural address, his inability despite great efforts to fashion a bipartisan approach to a stimulus bill in the House and a lack of success thus far to do so in the Senate, and some quick deviations from his high minded anti-lobbyist rules within days of its promulgation, have joined to keep him from realizing an A or A- thus far. More later!