The Next Challenge for Obama: Finishing What He's Started

Though critics said the president's decision to force out GM chief Richard Wagoner was a misuse of his power, it showed he can be tough.
Though critics said the president's decision to force out GM chief Richard Wagoner was a misuse of his power, it showed he can be tough. (By Carlos Osorio -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Sunday, April 5, 2009

It is entirely possible that six or nine months from now, President Obama will look back on his first 75 days in office and consider them the easy part. Not because they have been flawless, which they have not been, but because he must now try to finish all that he has started.

Last week was another typical week in Obama's perpetual-motion presidency. Restructuring the auto industry on Monday. Setting in motion new arms-control talks with the Russians on Wednesday. Helping forge agreement on international action to combat the global recession on Thursday. Enactment of a budget resolution by Congress that night. Prodding NATO to help with the war in Afghanistan on Saturday.

Almost daily, his words and actions have helped bring his governing style into sharper focus. Obama has shown a propensity to concentrate on the biggest issues, juggle many problems simultaneously, take his licks when necessary, exercise power in strikingly different ways depending on his leverage and push off until later some of the real battles that will define his presidency.

Last week, he was alternately confrontational and conciliatory, ruthlessly dictating personnel policy to one of the nation's most important corporations, treading more gingerly overseas in hopes of showing a new face to the world and accepting enough revisions to his budget plan to avoid embarrassing defections by Democrats.

His ambitions and performance have been rewarded with still-strong approval ratings -- and a host of unresolved challenges, as the past week has highlighted. He got less stimulus for the global economy than he wanted at the G-20 summit in London, and while he won support for his new policy in Afghanistan, he got few additional combat troops from NATO allies. He is far from answering the question of what to do about the auto industry, and the budget resolution leaves some of his major initiatives hanging tenuously.

The decision to force the ouster of General Motors chief executive G. Richard Wagoner Jr. represented a display of raw force not previously seen from Obama. Critics called the move a gross overuse of federal power in the private economy and a double standard, given all that has been done for the financial industry without similar accountability. But for those who asked during the campaign whether he was tough enough for the presidency, Obama sent a signal that he would not flinch from difficult and controversial decisions.

In Europe, he could not dictate terms to the G-20 nations for dealing with the economy, and did not try. He was prepared to accept less than he wanted and willing to acknowledge the limits of American power in an interconnected world. While he prodded Europeans to do their share, economically and militarily, he used charm, persuasion and, yes, his international celebrity status instead of muscle.

His economic objectives for the week abroad, said White House senior adviser David Axelrod, were to prevent gridlock among the nations, to set in motion a process for greater regulation of the financial industry and to gain support from other countries on the need for additional stimulus. "We came out where we thought we could," he said. "We came out ahead."

Not everyone agreed with the assessment that Obama came out ahead of his hopes, but few doubted -- as many did during the campaign -- whether he would be comfortable on the world stage.

Axelrod said the other overriding goal of the trip was to set a new tone of cooperation in contrast to perceptions of the Bush administration, "to establish dialogue and relationships with these leaders and play a constructive leadership role. . . . He was able to accomplish that."

A Republican strategist said the positive reaction to Obama and first lady Michelle Obama from foreign audiences will be remembered more than any policy setbacks. "What's coming through is that the country is regaining its footing with its allies and that we're learning to work together again," he said. He called it a rebalancing after the presidency of George W. Bush.

A few weeks ago, the story of Obama's budget was the threat to his priorities posed by members of his own party. When the budget resolution was approved late Thursday over unanimous Republican opposition, just 20 House Democrats and two Senate Democrats voted no.

Democrats made important changes in Obama's blueprint, cutting back some spending and altering his tax proposals. They did not fully excise his major long-term initiatives, health care and energy, but he faces major fights on both fronts. From the vantage point of the White House, Obama lived to fight another day. "It's got our priorities, and we're still alive," a senior White House official said.

Phase one of the Obama presidency will end with his return on Tuesday. The next phase may test him even more. "As hard as the recovery bill and the budget were, health-care reform and climate change are even harder," Democratic strategist Geoff Garin said. "He's got some pretty heavy lifts ahead of him."

Good poll numbers, Axelrod said, "are not something you keep in your strongbox and take out once in a while and admire. They provide capital to get things done." That will be the challenge of the next phase of Obama's presidency and the true measure of his leadership.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company