Substance Over Style

Critics said Obama was a lightweight on the campaign trail. His first 100 days have proved them wrong.

04.28.09 9:16 PM ET

Critics said Obama was a lightweight on the campaign trail. His first 100 days have proved them wrong. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

The symbolic accomplishment of electing America’s first black president quickly faded against the real-world demands of the job during Barack Obama’s first 100 days. Benefiting in part by comparison with President George W. Bush, he has made good on his promise to bring hope and change to the White House. But President Obama’s post-partisan aims have found a sometimes-rocky transition from the poetry of campaigning to the prose of governance. So here is a quick rundown of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the first 100 days.

The hit on candidate Obama was that he was too inexperienced in foreign policy, a powerful symbolic presence with a penchant for style over substance. So it may be a surprise for some that the substance of foreign policy has been his young administration’s greatest success. President Obama quickly depolarized the most divisive issue of this decade—the Iraq war—while doubling America’s commitment to defeating al Qaeda and the resurgent Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. There have been symbolic missteps—the Saudi bow and the Hugo Chavez photo—as well as bumper-sticker victories like the strike against the Somali pirates. President Obama’s YouTube diplomacy has provoked jeers from his reflexive opponents, but America’s reputation is on the mend and our strategic resolve is intact, without apologies.

The bad news of the first 100 days was centered on the inherited implosion of economy, with the stock market hitting its low at the 50-day mark: March 9. Since then, the market has rallied after initial criticism of administration policy and credit has begun to flow. But in the unprecedented neo-Keynesian spending spree, President Obama’s rhetoric of fiscal responsibility and deficit-reduction began to sound absurd. Delegating the stimulus bill to House Democrats was a strategic and substantive mistake, and the subsequent $400 billion earmark-laden spending bill only added insult to injury. The budget-deficit projections are bad and getting worse. Hard choices are going to have to be made, and that will require the president taking on liberal spenders of his own party.

On the ugly front, President Obama’s attempts at post-partisanship have come under fire from the left as well as the right. But for every Democrat who’s counseled a blood-sport approach to the majority, bipartisanship be damned, conservative activists seem to have made a strategic decision to double down on hyperpartisanship armed with hysterical accusations about our nation being on the road to tyranny. This is unhelpful and intellectually dishonest—and it’s out of touch with the desire of most Americans to move toward a common ground, problem-solving approach to governance. The temptation of some liberal activists to push for torture trials or a truth commission only offers the mirror image of this divisive, destructive approach to American politics.

President Obama’s confident approach to the presidency contains contradictory impulses—he is simultaneously activist and conciliatory. But he should push ahead with his post-partisan vision for governing, against the complaints of Washington’s professional partisans. As virtually every 100-day poll makes clear, in a time piled high with difficulties, the American people are on his side because in matters of style and substance President Obama represents a break with the left/right, black/white politics of the past.

John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.

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