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02.01.09

Obama's 10 Best Moves and 5 Worst Stumbles So Far

He's had enough success to be polling better than a fairy-tale hero right now, but if his miscues start to add up, his popularity rating may fall to "troll."

Barack Obama has on balance had a very strong and mostly successful debut as president. In fact, he is currently polling better than leprechauns and unicorns. Really, you can look it up.

It’s been part substance, part style. From my admittedly skewed perch, a top ten list of reasons why Obama is off to a good start (and five of his biggest mistakes):

10. Socializing inside the Beltway: Obama’s forays outside the White House into D.C. have struck a winning note (from half-smokes at Ben’s Chili Bowl with the mayor to dinner with Michelle at Equinox) and seemed to signal a president who is accessible and is not holding a city that wants to love him at arm’s length.

Obama showed grace, class, and smarts by hosting a dinner the night before the inauguration honoring Sen. John McCain.

9. Snow Day Critique: Anyone who has ever lived in a city where winters actually happen cheered when Obama made fun of Washington, D.C.’s propensity to shut down schools at the mere sign of frost. Malia and Sasha even joined in the act, suggesting that in Chicago not only would they have been in school, they would have been forced outside onto the playground. And, speaking of snow, how about them Steelers? Very refreshing to have a president declare a favorite in the Super Bowl.

8. Dinner with conservatives at George Will’s house, Republicans at the White House: Obama is keeping his enemies close and smothering them with love and attention. Doesn’t mean they’ll lighten up on him or even offer up a single vote on important legislation (see, ahem, the House stimulus vote), but he deserves credit for this “outreach,” and over time, if he keeps it up, it will pay dividends.

7. Freezing the pay of White House staff: Leading by example, Obama froze the pay of 100 White House employees who make more than $100,000 a year. “Families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington,” sayeth Obama.

6. Retention of Bush Defense Secretary Robert Gates: In a single stroke, Obama proved he is willing to be bipartisan, that he has the backbone to stand up to the left, and he sent a strong signal to our military and the rest of the world that America won’t be waving a white flag in Iraq. A very pragmatic and smart move. People on both sides of the aisle who know Gates are unanimous in their praise of his intelligence and character. Not to mention his ability to manage two wars.

5. New lobby rules: Obama’s rules barred federal lobbyists from contributing to or raising money for the transition effort. Those who left the transition team were barred for a year from lobbying the incoming administration on matters related to their transition jobs, and current lobbyists who joined the team were barred for 12 months from working in policy fields related to their lobbying work. Obama’s ethics rules also declared that ex-lobbyists in his administration couldn’t work on issues they lobbied on for two years, a rule on which he has demonstrated some flexibility.

4. Appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of State: Naming Hillary Clinton secretary of State was a smart two-fer: a) By effectively kicking Senator Clinton upstairs, Obama elegantly co-opted a once and potentially future rival; and b) The nomination likely blunted any residual resentment among Hillary supporters against Obama for “usurping” the presidency from eschewing petty rivalries in favor hiring people who can get things done.

3. Dinner honoring Sen. John McCain: Obama showed grace, class, and smarts by hosting a dinner the night before the inauguration honoring Sen. John McCain. I’ve said before that McCain’s best days in the Senate could be ahead of him. He could be a bridge for Obama to the Republican Senate. And so far, Obama has played him like a violin. On the other hand, McCain isn’t just rolling over, standing up for his principles on issues like the stimulus, Timothy Geithner’s confirmation, and Obama’s relaxation of his lobby rules for William Lynn.

2. Al Arabiya TV Interview: Obama’s decision to hold his first interview as commander in chief with an Arab network was a very smart move, sending a message that he wanted to “listen” and not “dictate.” Although largely symbolic, the gesture met a terrific reception from a culture that cherishes relationships. In Middle Eastern news venues like Al-Jazeera, Cairo's Al-Ahram newspaper, and Al Arabiya news, the tone in which the United States is depicted already shows signs of shifting. But The Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland characterizes the gesture with a dose of needed reality: “President Obama repeatedly extended his hand to the world’s Muslims in his first 10 days in power. His respectful tone and gestures toward Arab states in particular were as welcome as they were deft. But it would be a mistake to conclude that the gears of history have shifted and what Americans have come to call the ‘war on terror’ is over.”

1. Inauguration: Wow. It seemed more like a modern-day Woodstock than a political inauguration. Incredible choreography and images. No one will remember the speech, which fell short of expectations, but no one will forget the pageantry, the theatrics, the energy, the excitement and the catharsis of electing America’s first African-American president. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was proud of America on inauguration day. And if they weren’t, they shouldn’t be here.

But Obama has also had his stumbles. And put together a few stumbles, and next thing you know, you’re falling. Fall a few times, and next thing you know, you’re more unpopular than gnomes and trolls (you can’t look it up yet, but just wait). Being leader of the free world these days is hard business, no matter who you are.

Not enough for a top ten yet, but here’s five:

5. Richardson for Commerce: Oops. The normally buttoned-up Obama operation dropped the vet on this one. Or Richardson mishandled. Either way, it was the first stick in the until-then smoothly running transition spokes.

4. A tax problem here, a tax problem there, pretty soon you got problems: Let’s be honest, at any other time, under any other administration, Tim Geithner would have been bounced the minute his tax problems got flagged. And now we learn that Tom Daschle has his own problems. Not as significant as Geithner’s problems, and most people probably care more about the elite perception of being chauffeured around D.C. than not paying the taxes for it. But Clinton dumped Zoe Baird and George W. Bush dumped Linda Chavez for a lot less. And what about transparency and disclosure? Obama’s team had information about Richardson, Geithner, and Daschle for months and chose to sit on it.

3. If you’re going to have strict lobbyist rules, abide by them: Obama has already broken his own lobby edict with the appointment of William J. Lynn III as deputy secretary of Defense. Lynn spent the last two years lobbying for defense contractor Raytheon. Even Sen. Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, is critical of the choice: “Given the president’s new stricter rules requiring his appointees to recuse themselves from matters or issues on which they have lobbied, the Senate Armed Services Committee will need further information before proceeding with the nomination of William J. Lynn III to be deputy secretary of Defense.” And another Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, questions the notion of recusal: “You can’t just recuse yourself from huge programs at the Pentagon if you’re going to do that job.”

2. If you mention Rush, expect a blitz: Obama told Republican lawmakers to stop listening to Rush Limbaugh, which had the effect of taking a bat to a hornets' nest. Wrong strategy.

1. Take My Stimulus, Please: This bill is like a rotting corpse. Every day this thing sits out in the sunlight, it starts to stink more. Public support has already dropped below 50 percent. It’s impossible to get everyone to salute an omnibus bill like this, but as the details get more examination, there seems to be growing evidence that there’s not all that much stimulus in the stimulus. Zero votes from Republicans in the House. Youch. Without some serious concessions in the Senate, the potential grows that Republicans in the Senate could follow the lead from their colleagues in the House and vote in lock-step against the bill.

Mark McKinnon is vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media. He is also co-chairman of Arts & Labs, a collaboration between technology and creative communities that have embraced today’s rich Internet environment to deliver innovative and creative digital products to consumers.