Last spring, at a wistful panel discussion, Democrats in exile mulled how a new president could make a splash in the first 100 days. "He could close the banks," I joked. "It worked for FDR." Well, it seemed funny at the time.
Barack Obama won the election in a cinematically stirring campaign—then took office amid the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression. For most new presidents, the "first 100 days" comparison is unfair. As historian William Leuchtenberg noted, they resented governing "in Roosevelt's shadow." In Obama's case, the comparisons are fair. They make plain that—because of dire times, presidential ambition, and political skill—Obama may be a deeply consequential president.
First impressions matter. Obama has glided into the presidency with remarkable panache. He blithely sheds taboos, from holding a White House Seder to moving to normalize relations with Cuba. He speaks inconvenient truths without getting scalded, as when he admitted America's appetite for illegal drugs was the root of much of Mexico's trouble. He seems born to inhabit the office. Think of the distance he has traveled: just five years ago, he was a part-time state senator and part-time law professor, someone perhaps wondering if his career hadn't turned out quite as he hoped. It all feels less like a passing of the baton than the breaking of the sound barrier.
No president since Franklin Roosevelt has had a more immediate policy impact. FDR passed 15 major laws in his first weeks. But budget rules were different then. Obama's stimulus would have been four or five separate new laws: the biggest tax cut ever, the most significant energy conservation program in history, the largest single federal investment in education ever, and the biggest infrastructure bill since the creation of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. The budget blueprint that moved through Congress, if it guides policy and spending decisions, will help launch healthcare reform and climate change—daunting, complex goals.
It's hard to escape the feeling that we have entered into a new, unfamiliar epoch. The past quarter century was marked by market fundamentalism, widening inequality, and a repeated derogation of government. Historian Sean Wilentz dates the Age of Reagan as stretching from 1974 to 2008. Certainly, Bill Clinton thought of himself as a progressive president governing a conservative country. The swift economic calamity put an angry punctuation mark at the end of that era. Indeed, government assumed a far more assertive role even in George W. Bush's final months, when TARP was enacted, AIG, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac were nationalized, and the taxpayers bought up much of the banking industry. Obama has continued to reassert government's invisible hand in myriad ways, all bidding to restore confidence. Such policy changes ripple outward. When Ronald Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981, it tipped the balance of labor management relations throughout the economy. Similarly, Obama's firing of GM CEO Rick Wagoner may be felt far more widely than just in that one company. As Dorothy might have put it, "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in What's the Matter With Kansas anymore."
Obama's approach displays two surprising weaknesses. First, there is a mismatch between his bold political intuitions and his technocratic policy instincts. Even his most ardent supporters couldn't explain the banking or healthcare plans. But history teaches that if policies are too complicated to explain to voters, public support will be fleeting. (Jimmy Carter's energy plan, meet Clinton's health plan.) Soon Obama's personal approval may not be enough to rally citizens. More unexpected, the most powerful orator of recent decades has been needlessly reticent as communicator in chief. The speech before Congress was magnificent, but the inaugural was flat, a missed opportunity to lay out a broad vision of governance. His two prime-time press conferences were informative and serious-minded, but so dry that all but the hardiest citizens likely tuned out. He has not given a prime-time speech to the country to explain in relaxed and simple terms the roots of the current crisis in the recent era of reckless deregulation, why a more assertive government role is necessary, and what will happen next. Interestingly, his most moving explanation of broad themes was not a policy speech, but his talk in Springfield commemorating Abraham Lincoln's birthday. In his most full-throated defense of a strong government, he evoked Lincoln's notion of the union. "Only by coming together, all of us, and expressing that sense of shared sacrifice and responsibility—for ourselves and one another—can we do the work that must be done in this country," he thundered. "That is the very definition of being American." We haven't heard words like that in prime time, and we should.
The Brennan Center for Justice's Michael Waldman was chief speechwriter for Bill Clinton.