From the Start, Putting a Bold Stamp on the White House

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

There has been nothing tentative about President Obama's first 100 days in office. The defining characteristics of his presidency have been his appetite for leadership, the breadth of his ambitions and his determination to pass his programs in the face of united Republican opposition.

Some presidents start slowly. Obama began to lead even before he was sworn in, responding to a deepening recession by promoting an $800 billion stimulus package designed to prevent the economy from becoming even worse. He has set in motion so many initiatives -- domestic and international -- that his top advisers know that one of their biggest challenges will be to prevent the many pieces of his agenda from crashing into one another before they can be enacted and begin to work.

For this fast start he has been rewarded with approval ratings that exceed those of his predecessors -- two in three Americans approve of the job he is doing -- and serious questions about the long-term implications of his multifront agenda. As historian Robert Dallek noted, "I don't think you can point to anything at the end of 100 days that will give you a clear indication of how we're going to see the president's performance at the end of four years."

No presidency is truly defined in its first 100 days, but there are clear insights into a new leader's temperament, governing style and political philosophy that can provide a guide to the future. For Obama, the transition from presidential candidate to Oval Office occupant has begun to answer some of the contradictions that persisted through his long quest for the White House.

One of those was how Obama would resolve the tension between his talk of a post-partisan governing style and the substance of an agenda that tilted clearly in the direction of liberal, activist government. "Now it's clearer that Barack Obama was actually serious about the agenda he was advancing, and now as president he's trying to move it -- in fact, move it all," said William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution. "If that means a lost opportunity for more substantive bipartisanship and a change in tone in Washington, that's a trade-off he and the people around him are willing to accept."

Obama also has answered definitively the question of which would take priority -- enacting the broad agenda of health care, energy reform and education that he championed throughout the campaign or responding to the economic crisis that hit in full force as the campaign was ending. Many analysts questioned whether he could do both, given the fiscal implications they would entail. Obama has decided not to choose between them, and he used a recent speech at Georgetown University to argue the case that short-term stimulus without long-term structural reforms of major parts of the economy risks a return to bubble economics.

Given all the activity, Obama's first 100 days have often been compared to those of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. But historian David M. Kennedy, who wrote a major work on the Depression, said Obama's opening months differ from Roosevelt's in one important way. "They are putting things on the table now that are very comprehensive changes of the sort that Roosevelt didn't bring forward for a couple of years," Kennedy said. Roosevelt "had a general idea of what he wanted to accomplish, but it took him a while to put it all together," he added.

Obama's ambitions have been revealed through the pursuit of his agenda. His appetite for governing is clear from the way he has talked about the presidency; aides say his goal is to be a transformational president. His most revealing comments came Feb. 27 in an interview with PBS's Jim Lehrer. "I think that we are at an extraordinary moment that is full of peril, but full of possibility," Obama said. "And I think that's the time you want to be president. . . . This is when the political system starts to move effectively."

Left unresolved is the question of Obama's political ideology. His first 100 days have produced much talk but little consensus on that question. His most conservative critics call him a socialist, and other Republicans warn that he has begun a dangerous experiment with big-government liberalism. Some Democrats describe him as progressive; White House officials see him as pragmatic, responding to the hand he was dealt.

His economic policies amount to a huge increase in government spending and a major intervention by the government into the economy -- owning big stakes in financial institutions and possibly General Motors; ordering the dismissal of corporate executives; trying to set executive compensation. Whether this is seen by Obama as a necessary but distasteful response to the size of the economic problem he inherited or an underlying belief in the effectiveness of the federal government will be known only later.

Conservative strategist and writer Daniel Casse sees Obama as a moderate with liberal tendencies, but not at heart an ideologue. His ambitions, he said, may be large in scope but not necessarily in detail. By which he means: Will Obama really attempt to restructure the auto unions; will he do more than complain about executive pay?

Stylistically, Obama appears comfortable in the presidency. One aide described the White House under Obama as a place of serious deliberation, without the chaos that sometimes descends on a new administration.

In an administration that includes major personalities such as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, there is no doubt who is setting the tone. He is explainer in chief, advocate in chief, initiator in chief. "He believes effective communication is close to the core of an effective 21st century presidency," Galston said. "That doesn't mean that if you do it well, you'll succeed, but if you don't do it well, you won't. The jury is out on whether overexposure will set in."

Republicans disagree with the substance of Obama's economic policies and have bet that those policies will look more questionable in a year or two than they do at the moment. That is why the jury is out on much of Obama's presidency. It will be months before the public begins to judge whether he has delivered the results he is promising. But in his first 100 days, Obama has already revealed much about himself.

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