For Obama, a frenetic first 50 days

March 10, 2009|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

When George W. Bush announced his policy on stem cell research in July 2001, it was considered one of his most significant actions to date. That was fully six months into Mr. Bush's first term.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama reversed his predecessor's stem cell policy. For another president, in another time, this would have been a momentous decision. But for this president, in these times, it was almost a blip on the radar screen.

That's because the opening weeks of Barack Obama's presidency have been unlike any in the United States since the oft-referenced arrival of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Though the American economy has slowed - or rather, because it has slowed - the speed at which government and politics are moving has accelerated. So instead of waiting a full 100 days before making assessments of the Obama administration, the 50-day mark suffices for a quick, early review.

The first thing to be said about Mr. Obama's first seven weeks is that, when it came to surrounding himself with people in his Cabinet and other top positions, he chose skill and competence over loyalty and even partisanship. By keeping Secretary Robert Gates at Defense, and appointing James L. Jones as his national security adviser and fellow Illinoisan Ray LaHood as his Transportation secretary, Mr. Obama exhibited the kind of post-partisan inclusivity he trumpeted during his campaign. And in selecting Hillary Clinton as secretary of State, the president demonstrated a willingness to bury the intra-party hatchet and show respect to the 18 million Democrats who preferred her to him last year.

Not every appointment went smoothly, however. In a rush to find a Commerce secretary, Mr. Obama's first choice, New Mexico Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, proved to be too difficult to vet, and his second nominee, New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, embarrassed the president by bailing out at the last moment.

But his transformative economic choices are the substantial part of the 44th president's early agenda. And "transformative" has a double meaning here: The scale of government spending is itself audacious, but so are the types of government actions the administration has undertaken.

Mr. Obama is gambling that his mix of tax cuts and government spending will jump-start the economy, and that the bad assets in the banking, insurance and mortgage sectors that the government and taxpayers are assuming will increase in value once the recession ends.

The government now owns part of, or is otherwise taking some type of receivership role in, companies ranging from the American Insurance Group to Citigroup. Intervention of this magnitude dwarfs the government's formation of the Resolution Trust Corporation in the 1980s to solve the savings and loan crisis.

During his first televised presidential address before a joint session of Congress, President Obama then called for a major infusion of government spending in three areas: energy, education and health care. Total it all up, and the staggering price tag for Mr. Obama's first budget is $3.6 trillion.

If all this were not enough, Mr. Obama has announced troop increases for Afghanistan and a withdrawal of combat personnel from Iraq within the next 19 months; he also signed executive orders covering subjects from gays in the military to the treatment of terrorist detainees. Every week seems to bring more major announcements.

A source close to the Obama administration says the whiplash pace of proposals and executive orders will slow by summer, when officials inside the White House hope to relax some. Until then, we can expect to continue to witness a flurry of activity from a White House unlike anything seen in decades.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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