Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Day 1(00)

The roads and turnpikes of the state of Pennsylvania will probably be a joy to drive on very soon. Besides receiving its part of the stimulus money devoted to the national infrastructure, the Keystone State can be expected to gain other benefits from the party in power, the Democrats, whose ranks swelled by one on Tuesday, when Republican Senator Arlen Specter walked across the aisle, apparently for good.

Specter’s reverberant action on Tuesday conveyed unto the Democrats the numerical bragging right, the legislative tipping point of a 60th seat in the United States Senate. In ways we’ve yet to see, that lever of a decided majority may be the most powerful weapon at the disposal of President Barack Obama.

Today — the 100th day of an Obama administration poised for action on a number of vital fronts — can also mark the first day of a truly productive phase of an administration suddenly liberated from the prospect of indefinite senatorial gridlock.

It took him a hundred days, but now, today, Barack Obama may well have achieved his first chance to truly, fully govern this nation.

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We’ve been waiting for today — the 100-Day Milestone Benchmark Touchstone — almost as long as we had to wait for the dog. Both wings of the punditburo will cough up bulletized hairballs, “report cards” and subjective checklists of promises kept and promises shunted, for now, to the back or the side of the first-term agenda.

Even by the twisted, elastic, utterly partisan yardstick of the Republicans who oppose him as a conditioned reflex, President Obama has so far been more than game to the challenge of the presidency, a thoroughbred whose biggest shortcoming may be an outsize sense of what’s possible in a nation whose largest institutions — the ones right now most in need of various rescues — are the ones that move the slowest.

He’s moved on several fronts: repealing restrictions on stem-cell research; rolling back destructive Bush White House initiatives on energy and the environment; closing the Guantanamo Bay prison and torture facility; and endeavoring to impose a finality — an end time if not an end date — on the tragic, costly and unnecessary war in Iraq.

But what’s important isn’t so much what Obama has achieved legislatively or by executive order; what predominates in these 100 days has to do with what he represents to the American people: a sense of the possible, that indelible embrace of the future we haven’t had in quite a while. It’s not tangible, it doesn’t lower your mortgage interest rate, and it sure as hell isn’t folding money.

But that feeling of things improving, the ability to impart that intrinsically American sense of Yes is as central to the presidency as the nuclear launch codes. This appeal reflects not the cult of personality, as the conservatives insist, but the power of personality. And there’s a profound difference between the two.

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The American people are able to make that distinction. The latest Associated Press poll finds public approval of Obama in the 60 percent range, up there with heavy hitters like Roosevelt, Reagan and Clinton at similar points in their presidencies. And the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, sampling Americans’ feelings towards Obama, found that 51 percent approve of him and his policies, while another 30 percent approve of him personally even though they disagree with those policies.

That’s why the end of the “honeymoon” expected by the punditburo and the Republicans may not come to pass in the usual way. Americans understand that the listing ship of our economy didn’t take on water overnight, and couldn’t possibly be righted in a hundred days, or two hundred or maybe even three.

That doesn’t mean President Obama gets a pass. Style points alone don’t a president make. Some of his most important campaign pledges — an insistence on the rule of law; a refusal to turn a blind eye to lawbreakers — have yet to fully materialize. As Obama’s taken up the baton of leadership, he’s found himself squaring the circle between the rhetoric of the campaign and the reality of governing.

Sen. Specter’s defection will make that reconciling of principle and practice an easier thing to accomplish. But President Obama must going forward continue to stay out in front of the American experience, holding himself accountable for the nation’s policies, staying in touch with the country he leads and doing it with the visible accessibility we associate with the nation’s best leaders.

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It’s like when you’re riding the New York City subway or the BART train in San Francisco, and midway through your journey, the train … slows … to a stop somewhere under the heaving bowels of Manhattan or some point under the cold water of San Francisco Bay.

You don’t know why you’ve stopped. You’re sure it’s for a good reason. But it’s reassuring to hear the voice of the engineer, telling you: Everybody chill, we have a technical difficulty, we’ll be moving soon. You can’t do anything about it, but it’s just good to hear someone’s on the case doing his level best to get things moving again. Somebody’s at the helm. Someone’s in charge.

Whatever happens over the next 1,363 days, President Obama will do himself a lot of good by maintaining and building on the visceral connection he has with the American people. No doubt, his legislative agenda will advance in fits and starts; setbacks and missteps are coming that he won’t be able to do anything about; we can count on coming global upheavals that Obama can neither predict nor prevent.

But as long as Obama maintains his dialogue with the American people, and continues working to pursue the agenda that won him election, he’ll be able to make withdrawals from the tranche of national goodwill he now enjoys.

There’s no challenge he’ll face in the future that can’t be first addressed by his being the communicator-in-chief, the kind of communicator he’s been for the last hundred days, the kind this Bushed nation has desperately needed for the last eight years.
Image credits: Obama top, Obama crowd: Pete Souza, The White House. NBC News/Wall Street Journal snapshot: © 2009 The Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones.

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