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100 Days Report Card: Political Strategy

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During the first 100 days of his presidency, Barack Obama's political team scored a number of big victories. With few exceptions, the political strategies they've employed have been effective, helping to lay the foundation for a broad domestic and foreign policy agenda. Here's how the administration stacked up:

Dealing with the GOP (A+)

Sometimes the best political strategy is to just stay out of the way. During Obama's first 100 days, the Republican party has been a singular force in its ability to unwittingly help the Obama presidency. As it devolves into a movement of the fringe, the GOP continues to alienate Independent voters while it drives moderate Republicans out of the party. Arlen Specter's decision yesterday to switch parties is of note particularly because his core constituency of voters have already taken the plunge.

Still, the Obama administration has seized every opportunity to further the GOP's demise. Their elevation of Rush Limbaugh as a de facto leader of the party was incredibly effective, causing damage to the GOP without risking political backlash. Through the debate on the economic stimulus, the White House received criticism from both sides of the aisle for emphasizing bipartisanship over the contents of the stimulus package. But the White House was more concerned with the long-term impact of a push for bipartisanship, not the short-term fluctuations of polls that early in Obama's presidency. Having acted as an honest broker with Republicans, willing to compromise and hear opposing viewpoints, and having been perceived as such, gave Obama ownership over bipartisanship in a way that has been poisonous to the Republican party ever since. Obama solidified, perhaps permanently, the notion that he would make a credible effort to work across the aisle. Going forward, any failure to reach agreement has appeared to be the result of Republicans acting in bad faith. That is likely to continue.

That story may illustrate the Obama political operation's biggest strength. His closest advisers almost always take the long view when determining a political strategy. They traded looking weak temporarily for the branding of bipartisanship, and they accrued significant political capital in the process.

Controlling the Media Cycle (A+)

Barack Obama is the news cycle. More so perhaps than any president in history, Barack Obama's day-to-day actions drive the news online, in print and in broadcast. Obama's political team has capitalized on Obama's celebrity, the very attribute lambasted by the McCain campaign, to dominate the conversation, and ultimately lead it. A president and West Wing staff that understand how to exist in a new media environment can't help but dominate a news cycle. In a world with a minute-to-minute news cycle, the man with the minute-to-minute schedule is king. Or in this case, president.


Strategy with Congress (A-)

Barack Obama was pushing hard to recruit Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff well before Election Day. He recognized that perhaps the most critical relationship for the White House to build and maintain was its relationship with Congress. Rahm's experience in the Democratic leadership and his extensive personal relationships made him an especially good choice for developing a strategy for legislative affairs.

In both chambers, the president gave members of Congress a wide berth, allowing members to write the legislation themselves, based on a White House blueprint. That respect for Congress as an institution, and recognition of the critical balance of relationships on the hill, was wise. It is especially important on the House side, where a quiet rivalry between Emanuel and Nancy Pelosi could present problems.

On the Senate side, the White House has thus far successfully wrangled enough Senators to end a filibuster on every piece of legislation they've put forward. That speaks to the success of their legislative strategy, issue by issue. But they also employed longer term strategies. As Chris Matthews reported yesterday on MSNBC, there was a concerted strategy, developed by the White House, designed to nudge Arlen Specter to leave the Republican party. According to Matthews, as early as February, Joe Biden was having high level conversations with Specter about switching parties. The administration's enormous success on that front, which culminated in Specter's switch yesterday, is further evidence of the effectiveness of their long term political strategies.

The Campaign in Governing (A-)

Obama has successfully transferred his most effective skills as a campaigner into his style of governing. When pushing for energy independence, health care reform, a new budget, an effective stimulus plan, or any number of other major issues facing the country, Obama has succeeded in part because he has been able to communicate directly to the American people. His first 100 days saw the first online town hall by a president of the United States. It's seen nearly as many press conferences as Bush's entire first term, and several large-scale town halls.

Obama has utilized the tools that propelled his campaign to help secure popular approval for his ambitious agenda. His administration also carefully crafts its public message like a campaign, beginning each day with an issue to drive the news cycle. If Obama wants people to be thinking about the bank bailout on Tuesday, he'll make remarks in the morning that will drive all subsequent news coverage.

Building Credibility (A)

It's not just that Obama has utilized the same tools of the campaign. It's that, as a politician, and a leader, he seems exactly as he did during those long months. The credibility he built during the campaign has been reaffirmed by the way he talks to the American people, with a level of frankness and sophistication that suggests he recognizes our maturity. When he speaks, he continues to give the impression that he is contemplative, hard-working and in control, and that when he makes a decision, he does so based on what he thinks is right.

In a first 100 day period, that kind of consistency over time is important. The contrast between Obama and Bill Clinton is telling. After Election Day, the usually affable, microphone hogging President-elect Clinton disappeared from cameras. He had just been elected leader of the free world, and had suddenly become elusive. Stories of his indecisiveness became commonplace; he was a gifted campaign, but appeared to be a stilted president. The combination was far from reassuring.

Obama, in stark contrast, has governed with what appears to have required no learning curve at all. That is as much a function of his personal political brilliance as it is a function of a deliberate strategy. The strategy was there, to be sure, but not many president's could get the job done.

Recovering (B+)

When the administration does slip up, and it has, it is gets back on its feet quickly. When Tom Daschle withdrew his name as HHS Secretary nominee because of tax problems, Obama took responsibility, bluntly offering that he had "screwed up." Bill Clinton would never have uttered those words. Neither would most politicians. But Obama understands that taking responsibility for a failure is actually good politics. It has been all along. People want leaders that have a sense of self-accountability.

The administration also appears to be recovering nicely from a recent misstep surrounding its initial decision to opposed a torture investigation. Sensing that the public, and news media, would not be satisfied with the White House's desire to "not relive the past," Obama proceeded cautiously. He suggested he wouldn't oppose an investigation into the architects of the torture policy, but expressed his continued concern about the investigation becoming a political witch hunt. That will not doubt be his public stance during the investigations that will inevitably follow; Obama will be able to satisfy most of the progressive base, while divorcing himself from any possible political backlash. The administration may have erred initially, but as is critical in politics, their recovery was masterful.

Overall (A-)

The administration's political strategy isn't perfect, but it's about as close to perfect as any president in modern history. Obama has successfully used his political capital to push his agenda, and as it moves forward, he continues to accrue more capital. One hundred days into his presidency, the administration hasn't suffered a single major setback on any legislative priority.

Still, the best measure of the administration's political strategy has to be how the public views his actions. On Obama's first full day in office, Gallup recorded a 68% approval rating for the new president. Yesterday, the Washington Post recorded him at 69%.

After 100 days, no one in the administration could ask for more than that.

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