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04.29.09

The Looming Backlash

President Obama’s first 100 days may have been a success, but the forces gathering against him are only gaining steam.

The first 100 days of Barack Obama’s presidency have been as flawless as any transition of such complexity could ever be. He’s a brilliant man, and he’s made brilliant choices very much in accord with his campaign promises. But why the pressure to judge him after only 100 days? I’d give him the first 270 days. That’s the length of your average pregnancy and anybody knows it takes 270 days to give birth to something of significance. Obama has laid the groundwork for greatness, but remediation for problems of the scale he’s confronting will take time. An assessment of his impact now—whether on the economy, health care, the courts—is a little premature.

The real test for Obama will be in negotiating some degree of backlash. As the pain of reduced circumstances and unemployment touches more and more lives, the search for scapegoats is likely to become bitter. I’d like to see what happens in a few months as Karl Rove and Dick Cheney become increasingly vociferous on Fox News. I’d like to see how much more life pundits give to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s threat to secede, or Representative Michelle Bachman’s characterization of her service in Congress as akin to being a “foreign correspondent” behind “enemy lines.”

Long-term, much of Obama’s success is going to depend on what happens with the courts. Issues ranging from state regulation of discriminatory lending practices to the extension of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act will be decided by the Supreme Court in the near future, and the current court is quite conservative. Moreover, at least three-quarters of the entire federal bench has been appointed by Republican administrations. Obama’s policies will be constrained and challenged by this reality, and it’s unclear how or if he can work around it.

The clearest success of President Obama’s first 100 days has been at the symbolic level. By firmly rejecting policies on torture, he’s undone much of the negative image of the United States with which the Bush administration left him. He’s also given many of us hope for a new era in race relations. (At the same time, we must remember that it is just that a hope, not yet a reality. Our sense of promise should not be used to undermine civil-rights protections or to underestimate the racial divisions that remain unaddressed, whether disparities in disease control, incarceration rates, education, or homelessness.) Finally, the Obama family has modeled a refreshing kind of American elegance: fashionable, fit, and frugal. As parents, they have rotated the duties of family and career with equal devotion and equal accomplishment. As partners, they are equally well-educated, outspoken, and poised. They have incorporated a grandmother into the definition of family, put a basketball court in the basement and planted vegetables amid all those ornamental tulips. The White House has never been cooler; it has never been warmer..

Patricia J. Williams is the author of The Alchemy of Race and Rights; The Rooster's Egg; and Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race. She is a also a columnist for The Nation.

Xtra Insight: Read other takes on the first 100 days from The Daily Beast's all-star team of analysts.