Steady In Tough Times

By Andrew Sullivan

It seems much longer than a hundred days to me. In fact, it feels quite natural now, almost part of the furniture. The thrilling change many of us campaigned for felt most intense and promising this time last year, and once the possibility of a president Obama loomed into view last fall, the thrill dissipated a little. It has certainly seemed that way watching him since he took office: he has talked less hope than sobriety. He has become an anchor of sorts, not a kite.

What has surprised me? Not much. I'm surprised by Michelle Obama's public relations success. I'm surprised by the total refusal of the Republicans to cooperate. I was surprised by the one obvious disastrous decision -- to hype Tim Geithner's first bank plan when he didn't yet have one. Other than that, Obama's first hundred days have seemed as predictable as his disciplined campaign. His instinctive small-c conservatism has led him not to reject the Bush legacy entirely, but to try, wherever he can, to make it work. Hence his attempt to rescue the fast-collapsing war in Afghanistan, and his postponement of real withdrawal from Iraq until next year. I worry that both decisions are the wrong ones -- that Afghanistan is hopeless and Pakistan worse; and that the lull in Iraq is the eye of a storm -- the one time when U.S. withdrawal might be feasible. But Obama's caution leads him in a less radical direction. And we will find out in time whether caution was merited.

The same might be said for his stimulus package and budget proposal. Both were adequate but not ground-shaking. The stimulus may well secure healthcare reform this year and prevent the recession's bottom from becoming an abyss: Not bad, but not exactly revolutionary. The budget's failure to grapple with long-term debt is equally unsurprising in a demand downdraft -- and it's no deep solution to the fiscal hole either. And since the revenues from cap and trade now look very iffy, and the growth projections for even this year look off by a mile, we're treading water, not forging ahead. In retrospect, deciding not to put the banks into swift receivership - assuming that was legally and politically an option - will probably prove to have been his most important move. Again, I cannot know if this was shrewd strategy or a missed opportunity. But it was a big decision, and Obama opted for the conservative option.

The clearest breaks with the Bush legacy have been, as expected, in foreign policy -- and all of them welcome. There have been no sudden moves, but a real and profound shift in America's attitude to the rest of the world. There is engagement and diplomacy, not grandstanding and war. The way Obama defused Chavez by actually shaking his hand was very deft. The outreach to the Iranian people through the media has helped scramble the Iranian elections and put more pressure on Ahmadinejad than Cheney ever could. The European tour was criticized for being short on substantive concessions, but I think that misses the point. Obama is laying a new groundwork for future action. The test will be how he grapples with Iraq withdrawal, and with Israel's determination to provoke an armed conflict with Iran. And neither challenge will be easy.

Has he said "goodbye to all that" with respect to the culture war, as I hoped a year and a half ago? I'd say an emphatic Yes. While the Republicans have responded to his emergence in ways that entrench their commitment to ideology and the red-blue split, Obama has somehow managed not to press the buttons they want. Americans greeted the "socialist" moniker by ramping up their disapproval of Republicans, not Obama. They see the merits of the stimulus package -- and even the kinder, gentler approach to resuscitating the banking sector -- along the same pragmatic lines Obama does. Moreover, without Obama, it's hard to see any administration, Democratic or Republican, being able to rescue the financial sector while managing the gales of populist anger out there.

The trust people still have in him is real. And he has tended to it well. His obvious reluctance to initiate criminal prosecutions for the war crimes of the Bush-Cheney era speaks to this desire to be president of all Americans and to avoid divisive and damaging battles. But the rule of law remains. It's hard to see how Holder can resist prosecuting obvious violations of the law on torture and mistreatment of prisoners. Nonetheless, Obama has shown he understands his office: to preside, not to prosecute.

My sense is that this is a subtle and auspicious start. He has built trust; he has restored a tone of responsibility; he has shown a new American face to the world; he has ended the torture program; although it may not be enough, he has done the minimum necessary to prevent a truly epochal depression; he has put science before ideology; and he has demonstrated outreach to his opponents. And he has done it with a real degree of grace and eloquence and sincerity that have rendered him more personally popular today than ever before.

We have an adult in charge. And we have civil public reasoning back in a persuasive president. Even with the fetid and somewhat desperate attempts of the far right to bring him down so soon, he dominates the stage right now. Because Obama's game is always a long one, a hundred days seems too soon to judge. But the ground has been laid. For what? We'll find out.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/04/steady-in-tough-times/16701/