Obama Must Beware the Gap Between His Rhetoric and His Politics

He is surely calm and industrious, but can the president avoid the trap of overreaching?

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt inspired the standard test for a new president. In the famous first 100 days, inheriting a nation in a crisis even graver than ours, he saved the banks and got no fewer than 15 historic bills through Congress. Those 100 days set the rhythm for the rest of FDR's first term: constant action, experimentation, and a dramatic expansion of the federal government he called the New Deal. How shall we mark President Obama's 100-day report card?

The first thing that can be said is that President Obama is no longer the first black president. He is the president; he has shed his skin and will be tested by policies, not pigmentation. He has clearly been popular enough, with an approval rating of over 60 percent so far. He has dominated the news, appearing on television in one form or another virtually every day. He has conveyed an unflappability—a calmness and coolness under fire—along with a seriousness and freshness of purpose. He has displayed a fluency of language that captures the intelligence and lucidity voters acknowledged when they elected him.

He is now trusted by the people to explain what has to be explained as he leads us through a painful journey from the familiar to the unknown. His spontaneous clarity and articulation stand in contrast to his predecessor, even though Obama still lacks the great lines, the catchphrase, or even the humor that would help communicate the complexities of our predicaments. We are certainly getting words, lots of them, in what has seemed to be a perpetual political campaign, so much so that on occasion he seems to be a rock star rather than the CEO of the world.

But the romance of campaigning is over, and we have to deal with real-life problems and the hangover of the deeply unpopular Bush administration, a political fact that, if anything, has helped Obama. "Yes, we can," he has said, and Americans repeat this mantra. The question remains, can he? He had a great start when he surrounded himself with people of talent who are professional, experienced, and comfortable with one another—and apparently can engage in open and candid conversation with the boss. His staff has proved able to move rapidly in the immediate crisis and, simultaneously, launch ambitious long-term efforts without much confusion or conflict. The result is a president who not only seems to be in charge but seems to have mastered the management of the presidency, a critical ingredient for a chief executive.

We want our president to succeed. We want a presidency that works; we know we cannot afford a failed president. So politically, he has the wind at his back. But as Nelson Mandela once said, "There is no easy walk to freedom." The public understands this, and if there is a danger for the president, it is that there is often a gap between his rhetoric and his politics. He seems to trust his powerful rhetoric to obscure what he sometimes is or is not doing. So our faith in the future has not yet been fully restored nor our confidence rebuilt, for this will take place only when there is a sense that the Obama policies have been solidly grounded.

Obama's major hurdle is the collapse of the financial system. Without mending that, our economy will continue to flounder and unemployment rise: The gross national product grew markedly under FDR, but five years into the New Deal, 10 million people (19 percent of the workforce) were out of work. Obama is to be commended for losing no time with his $787 billion stimulus plan, a bank financial restructuring package, a massive expansion of the role of the Federal Reserve Board, and housing recovery measures. On top of all that, he introduced an ambitious budget containing fundamental changes intended to transform and reform American capitalism and American values.

Americans judge that Obama has the right priorities: More than 90 percent consider the economy to be the most important issue. No wonder. Sixty-five percent say it is difficult for them and their families to get ahead. Clearly, the economy presents the president and his party with the opportunity to establish a Democratic era. At the same time, they cannot stumble on this, for if they do, their political capital will erode and the party will be vulnerable during the midterm congressional elections.