It has been a whirlwind. Even though Barack Obama has been accused of everything from socialism to fascism in his first 100 days in office, the best "ism" to describe his governing philosophy has been activism.
We still may be in a mess, but at least we aren’t in a malaise.
It has been a headlong rush from bailouts to budgets, from GM to the G-20, from Iran to Afghanistan, from stimulus to stem cells, from closing Guantanamo to opening a White House garden and from puppies to pirates.
The mind boggles. The head swirls. The stomach butterflies. This is clearly a White House that believes velocity is a virtue.
There is a not deeply hidden message behind all this: Unlike our last president, Barack Obama is not the hapless victim of events; he is not a prisoner either of history or his advisers. He does stuff. Some stuff might succeed and some stuff might fail, but he does stuff. His wife, Michelle, used to tell cheering crowds during the campaign, "Let’s show them that America is ready for Barack Obama!"
Ready or not, he is here. And, considering the old rule of Washington was that the more you do, the more you can be attacked (and so doing as little as possible made the most sense), his popularity remains high.
As I write this, Obama’s approval rating is around 60 percent, but that does not convey the true political landscape. The true political landscape is that Barack Obama stands alone on the political landscape. There is simply no other major figure in American politics at the moment.
The Republicans have helped him enormously. Their party is still reeling in shock from the elections of 2006 and 2008. With moderate or "soft" Republicans deserting the party (at least in polls) for the independent label, the Republican Party has grown more conservative, like a collapsing star solidifying around its base.
Which would be fine. There is nothing wrong with offering a choice and not an echo. But the Republicans have not yet figured out that to be a party of opposition, you have to offer actual alternatives. You can’t counter Obama’s activism with just a Theory of Negativity.
Obama was careful to begin his presidency by first lowering expectations. In the period between his election and inauguration, Obama conducted a gloom campaign. On "Meet the Press With David Gregory" on Dec. 7, Obama said, "Things are going to get worse before they get better." On his train trip to Washington for his inaugural, Obama said in Philadelphia, "Only a handful of times in our history has a generation been confronted with challenges so vast." And then in Wilmington, Del., he followed with, "Together, we know that America faces its own crossroads — a nation at war, an economy in turmoil, an American Dream that feels like it’s slipping way."
But as Yogi Berra used to say, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Now, as we approach Barack Obama’s 100th day in office, it feels like America has at least chosen a path. And as Obama cautiously said in mid-April, he sees "glimmers of hope" when it comes to the economy. "We’re starting to see progress," he said. "And if we stick with it, if we don’t flinch in the face of some difficulties, then I feel absolutely convinced that we are going to get this economy back on track."
Just as Franklin Roosevelt’s greatest achievement in his first 100 days was not specific legislation but a restoration of confidence, Obama’s greatest success has been restoring confidence at home and burnishing America’s image abroad.
Abroad, our image could hardly have been more tarnished. But Obama chose an interesting word to begin the polishing process, a word he used in his inaugural address: humility. "Our power grows through its prudent use," Obama said, "our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."
In London, in early April at a news conference during the G-20 summit, Obama was asked how his foreign policy differs from that of George W. Bush. Obama replied that "we exercise our leadership best when we are listening" and when "we lead by example, when we show some element of humility."
"Humility" is not a word often heard from American presidents. Has it led to immediate results? No. Talking to reporters in Istanbul, Obama’s chief adviser, David Axelrod, said: "Why didn’t the waters part, the sun shine and all ills of the world disappear because President Obama came to Europe this week? That wasn’t our expectation. That will take at least a few weeks."
But seeds have been planted. That’s what the first 100 days are for.