On April 16, 2009, about 100 days after President Obama took office, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Program on Science, Technology, America, and the Global Economy and the Boston University Washington Center sponsored a discussion of the new administration's achievements thus far and the challenges it will face moving forward. A panel of distinguished academics and journalists included Tom Fiedler, Dean of the Boston University College of Communications, Michael Kazin, Professor of History at Georgetown University, Gerald Seib, Assistant Managing Editor and Executive Washington Editor of The Wall Street Journal, and Kenneth T. Walsh, Chief White House Correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. Acting as moderator was Linda Killian, Director of the Boston University Washington Center and a current Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar.
Killian opened the discussion by listing the many accomplishments of the Obama Administration in the last few months: a "tear-inducing" inauguration, the closing of Guantanamo Bay, a Fair Pay Act, the establishment of the Economic Recovery Board, troop reductions in Iraq, the removal of restrictions on stem cell research, and a $780 billion stimulus plan, to name a few. Killian posed the question: are these decisions by the administration ambitious or over-reaching?
Seib noted that in a historical sense, the speed of these accomplishments is unprecedented. Not too long ago, many considered Reagan's tax cuts, accomplished by August of his first year, to be revolutionary.
On the other hand, Seib noted that polls by CNN, The New York Times, and Quinnipiac University all found that the majority of Americans believe President Obama to be acting within the responsibility and capacity of the presidency. Walsh added that President Obama has been able to familiarize himself with the role of the executive quickly by relying on the strength and experience of several Democratic mainstays in Washington like Rahm Emanuel and Hilary Clinton, an advantage that Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter lacked.
Killian then asked the panelists to compare the Obama Administration with past White Houses and comment on the transformative potential of his presidency. Kazin explained that the former presidents perceived as transformational, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, had been preceded by presidents widely accepted to be inept and self-defeating, a label that will likely also be attached to the presidency of George W. Bush. Kazin was reluctant to draw any ideological comparisons between Obama and Roosevelt, though they both have faced serious economic problems in their presidencies, because Roosevelt responded to these challenges more conservatively in his first 100 days.
Dean Fiedler, on the other hand, focused on the new features of this presidency: the Obama Administration has introduced novel and innovative ways to get his message out to the general public. Never before had a presidential candidate announced his running mate via text-message until Obama's campaign did so. Also during the campaign, President Obama successfully reached out to supporters via the web, rather than relying solely on the coverage of the mainstream media.
Walsh added that the Obama Administration has been more willing to grant access into both the private aspects and public policies of its president. Though, ultimately, while the media agencies have had to keep pace with the president's own public outreach, they still play a major role in publicizing his agenda.
On a new topic, Killian noted that many critics have characterized President Obama's agenda as liberal or socialist. Is socialism a warranted term? Walsh attributed these labels to a desire on the part of conservatives to gain popularity, as polls now show that only a quarter of Americans consider themselves Republican. Seib reasoned that President Obama is not socialist on the grounds that he has neither nationalized the banking system nor proposed a nationalized healthcare plan.
Expanding on the mention of healthcare, Seib pointed out that the Obama Administration would prefer that Congress write a healthcare bill, one that will include a government healthcare provider while retaining healthcare systems already in place. Walsh emphasized that the longstanding moralistic issue of extending healthcare coverage to all is now adjoined with the mounting practical consideration of the burden that healthcare costs place on both businesses and families.
Finally, the panelists weighed in on the most pressing challenges that President Obama now faces. All agreed that the economy will have to be the administration's main focus and will prove to be its most difficult task.
Seib explained that the White House cannot fix the financial and housing crises on its own, but Congress is now reaching a level of fatigue in confronting the full weight of the economic problems. He also warned that any sort of foreign incident, in the form of a terrorist attack, a nuclear attack from North Korea, or a meltdown of Pakistan would override any attempts to shore up the economy.
Walsh voiced concern over what he considers to be President Obama's over-reliance on his team of experts. He argued that President Obama will need more than the advice of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Lawrence Summers, Director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, to solve the country's economic woes.
Kazin added that the current situation is more complex than economic recessions of the past, such as the one that FDR faced. President Obama's policies will have to reach beyond stimulating the U.S. economy and also address the global aspects of the economic crisis.
Finally, Kazin stressed that, in order to be reelected in 2012, President Obama will have to do more than address the economic downturn; he will need to push forward a widely popular program, such as a healthcare bill. Like other popular presidents before him, there will have to be something he can point to and say "we have changed Americans' lives for the better."
Drafted by Andrew McNamara, STAGE Program
Kent Hughes, Director, STAGE Program