If Barack Obama wins on Tuesday as conventional wisdom predicts, he won’t be the first democratic president to inherit a bleak economy and democratic control of both the House and Senate. Franklin Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter were also dealt strikingly similar hands. One of them was enormously successful, while the other floundered. So will Barack Obama transform this nation like FDR or will he cut off his nose to spite his face like Jimmy Carter?
We may know the answer after the first 100 days. If Obama has a shaky start, it’s unlikely that he’ll flourish. With fresh wounds from a vicious election, Republicans will be looking to prove their point that Obama lacks leadership and judgment, and doing so in the first 100 days will make it difficult for Obama to gain the political capital he’ll need for the remainder of his presidency. If he can manage an impressive start to his presidency, he’ll secure enough trust from the American people that he’ll have sufficient political muscle to assume the mantle of the president.
Let’s look at the first 100 days to get a glimpse of Obama’s fate. I’ve chosen three areas to watch for in the coming months: the congress, the cabinet, and the constitution.
Roosevelt and Carter bickered famously with their democratic congresses. FDR couldn’t get his congress to shake their isolationist policies, while Jimmy Carter refused to get into bed with his democratic leadership. FDR and Carter each took their case to the American people, but unlike FDR, Carter failed to secure the trust of the people before he rolled the dice. Already having been burned by their government during the Nixon era, the people rejected Carter and congress in the 1980 election. FDR, on the other hand, used extensive public appearances and his famous fireside chats to gain the trust of the people. After Pearl Harbor, there was no question that isolationism had not worked.
To secure the trust of the American people, Obama may well consider calling a joint session of congress within the first week of his presidency. Given the crisis of the economy, few could question his motives. During the televised address, he’ll explain that our economic demons cannot be felled with one grand swing of the policy axe. Instead, the solution requires several smaller steps that may appear inconsequential when viewed in isolation, but represent a comprehensive solution when bundled together. He needs to explain that the economy cannot be restored overnight. Such a speech would give him the political cover to survive his first 100 days without appearing to be weak on the economy, and it would assert his presidential authority to congress and to the nation.
I believe that once Obama appears to have a strong command of economic reform, he’ll begin working on an expansive new energy policy that would be presented as the first of several steps to solving our economic woes. He has the full support of congress and of most Americans to advance alternative energy policies that will establish America’s global footprint in the 21st century.
One of his Obama’s first moves may be the appointment of a surprising number of conservatives to high-level positions within his administration. Not just Republicans – true conservatives. If he can appoint enough of them, it may sufficiently quiet the conservative backlash. This may be one of Obama’s wisest moves, even if it makes future policy decisions more difficult (which is a good thing).
More than anything, conservatives want a check on the complete control that Democrats may have on November 5th. They want to know that somebody is watching the henhouse. Obama needs to do more than just throw them a bone – he needs to make a bipartisan cabinet the centerpiece of his administrative staff.
This is a unique challenge for Obama. Under FDR, the nation had a trust of their government and their president – so FDR had the ability to appoint the people he needed without much contest. Under Carter, it was just the opposite. Carter was a true Washington outsider in an era of disdain for all government. Blue or red, it didn’t really matter who Carter picked. All were viewed with equal suspicion.
Of course, picking true conservatives to carry out a liberal vision is easier said than done. Such appointments need to have broad appeal without sacrificing the vision of the President, but we do this every time we pick a new Supreme Court justice, so it is entirely possible.
American may be politically divided, but we are all governed by the same constitution. Even if there is great disagreement about the interpretation of a few key phrases, Obama has an enormous opportunity to restore our faith in America’s central purpose.
Conservatives rejected the notion that Obama could be a centrist leader long ago, but that doesn’t mean he’s lost the ability to do just that. In a recent interview with Rachel Maddow, Obama suggested that his refusal to attack conservative principles (instead focusing on principal conservatives) was based on the belief that conservative philosophy is not necessary flawed but rather essentially abandoned in the Bush administration.
Obama’s first 100 days should include an aggressive effort to bring this country together under those ideals on which we can all agree.
This, more than anything, is what made the difference between FDR and Carter.
My conservative readers will argue that Obama is headed for the same cliff as Carter, and they’ll have lots of evidence to prove their point. My liberal readers will champion the vision of Obama as a 21st century FDR – with the same abundance of evidence.
The one thing that we can presume at this point, is that the first 100 days will make all the difference.