WASHINGTON — When President Obama finished announcing his Afghanistan-Pakistan policy on March 27, he turned to the advisers gathered behind him and said: “OK, now you’ve got to execute.”
That’s a good rubric for the Obama administration as a whole, as it contemplates the whirlwind progress of the First Hundred Days. The president has launched a panoply of new initiatives, domestic and foreign, and proposed trillions in new spending and financial rescue measures. If he were a juggler, you’d be applauding the dazzling display of energy — and wondering if he can keep all the balls in the air.
Now he has to execute. Polls suggest that the country is encouraged by the programs Obama has set in motion, with a trebling of those who think the nation is heading in the “right direction.” But in proposing a more activist role for Washington, he’s battling the image of government incompetence and inefficiency that has developed over the last generation, reaching its apogee during the Bush years. To succeed, Obama has to close the performance gap and show that government can deliver.
The Republicans are counting on him to fail. That’s not just a Rush Limbaugh sound bite, but the dominant motif of the GOP opposition to the administration’s budget and economic-recovery policies. The relentlessly negative Republican barrage strikes me as a big mistake. It misreads the mood of a country that through the long 2008 campaign consistently rejected the dividers. Obama-Biden triumphed over McCain-Palin because they were more convincing as uniters.
The Republican leadership, with its gloom-and-doom talk about the budget, is falling into a trap that its modern patron saint, Ronald Reagan, would have dodged. Reagan succeeded by contrasting his optimistic vision about America with the malaise and intellectual exhaustion of the Jimmy Carter era. Democrats back then wailed about Reagan’s irresponsible budgets and gushing red ink, just as the GOP is doing now about Obama. But the country wasn’t listening; it wanted change.
Now, the Republicans have taken over as the “tut-tut” party, and they are unwittingly embracing the narrative of America as a nation in decline. That’s never a good bet. Last week’s goofy anti-tax “tea parties” were a sign of a party chasing its own tail, ignoring the public desire for an activist government that can solve problems.
“Party primacy runs in cycles in our country,” argues David Axelrod, Obama’s senior political adviser. “Majority parties eventually run out of energy and ideas, and they’re left in a position where they can merely hope for the failure of the party that displaced them.”
“You have to act,” Axelrod continues in an interview. “People elected Obama to do that — to confront long-festering problems and change the direction of the country. There is a 100 percent guarantee of failure if we don’t act.”
Nobody would accuse Obama of inaction in his first three months. But what about the follow-through part? So far, the results are mixed.
On foreign policy, Obama has set ambitious goals, and he was wise to delegate responsibility for implementation to some strong personalities — George Mitchell as his emissary on Israeli-Arab issues and Richard Holbrooke as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those two know how to get a job done, not just get it started. A murkier area is Iran policy, where responsibility for implementation seems to be divided. Obama needs to avoid Bush’s mistake of straddling Iran policy options and, as a result, accomplishing nothing.
The X-factor on foreign policy is Obama himself, as the successful trip to Europe and Turkey showed. Critics focused on strut-your-stuff symbolism — as in the silly debate over whether he bowed to Saudi King Abdullah. But on a practical level, Obama began to repair the alliances that are necessary for the effective exercise of American power.
On domestic policy, the enforcer in chief seems to be Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, who is said to be developing metrics for evaluating success. The policy process worked poorly in the rollout of the Treasury’s bailout program, but it seems less shaky now. Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden will monitor the behemoth of the $787 billion stimulus program, aided by a strong deputy, Ron Klain.
During these first months, Obama has reminded his inner circle that they need to keep thinking about the long-term, even as they focus on short-term crises. That’s good advice, not least for the president himself. It’s about sketching a new foundation, and also getting it built brick by brick.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.