iOS app Android app More

James Warren

James Warren

Posted: April 29, 2009 10:40 AM

Looking Inward After 100 Days


On last week's The McLaughlin Group, Pat Buchanan and I agreed on something: Give President Obama an "A" for his first 100 days. If we concur, then there is such a thing as metaphysical certitude.

Now, let's quickly put aside the absurd, artificial construct of "100 days" and ask a related, perhaps more important, question: What should you and I get for grades?

I ask because the media-driven "100 days" obsession assumes that we're passive actors in turning around the mess Obama, my friend David Axelrod, my Chicago neighbor Rahm Emanuel, Tim Geithner and the rest have inherited. It assumes that we will wait and see what these folks will all do for us.

It's a point made in "Barack Obama and the Politics of Expectation," a piece by Benjamin Ramm, editor of a small London magazine, The Liberal, which you won't find at the grocery checkout counter with US, People and the rest. Save yourself the trip overseas and just try www.theliberal.co.uk.

If you recall the cold day in Springfield, Illinois, when the longshot Obama intrepidly declared his candidacy and willingness to take on the HMS Hillary, he declared, "Too many times, after the election is over, and the confetti is swept away, all those promises fade from memory, and the lobbyists and the special interests move in, and people turn away, disappointed as before, left to struggle on their own."

"That is why this campaign can't only be about me. It must be about us -- it must be about what we can do together."

The same is probably now true when it comes to the act of governing and extracting ourselves from a myriad of messes. I'm not sure it's enough to just wait and see how all goes, crossing our fingers, hoping a home won't be foreclosed on, a new job will be found, a credit card bill can be paid.

I'm not sure it's enough to wait until Obama, Axelrod, Emanuel & Co. figure out the right way to spend billions on reviving the financial industry, improving schools, reforming the health care system, diminishing our dependence on oil and oil, and magically getting so many of us back to work.

Indeed, in ways those guys probably don't even fully appreciate, the task ahead is hellaciously difficult.

I've just spent several days hanging with bankers from all over the world. They're very smart guys and gals, who've now been demonized as being at the heart of our current troubles. In the current Time magazine, several Obama officials take harsh shots at them, though none have the courage to be identified. Make no mistake, the one's I've been talking and drinking with are pretty contrite and quick to concede involvement in an age of excess; one of insufficient due diligence in lending too much money to too many people. And the guys from China, Germany and England were in the same boat.

But they also know that what faces the Obama administration, and governments worldwide, is truly complex. Several top executives indicated that they've been beckoned to serve as de facto counsel and teachers for Treasury officials. In some cases, many of their best people have been urged by the government to come aboard fulltime because the officials are desperate for bodies and a bit over their heads at the moment.

I listened to several experts explain to a room of sophisticated financial people the challenges in placing values on all those "toxic assets." Nobody in the room came away with any confidence that this will turn out well, or how much revenue might actually be generated. And they know this subject like I know the '61 Yankees.

Confronting a 10-foot putt to win or lose 20 bucks from a buddy may be pressure to some of us. But what the Obama administration faces is true pressure, including the prospect of unintended consequences. Yes, yes, there are several key figures, like Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who are students of past crises. But, as one top banking official said, just because he and others know the origins of previous debacles doesn't mean they know the solution to this one.

And then there are all of us.

What should we be doing? Is it enough to go to work, or look for work, then hit the couch for 24, American Idol, or maybe one of the cable television yellfests considering born-again Democrat Arlen Specter, then just hope our elected leaders take us to safe harbor, if not necessarily any promised land?

The business of grading Obama's first 100 days is intertwined with the subsequent questions about whether he'll succeed, fail or let us down. But nobody ever asks what we, as citizens, should be doing; about how we can somehow help in our communities, maybe even in Washington, our state capitals, the nearest City Hall, in the process exploiting our passion, intelligence and craving for better times.

I know nothing about derivatives, new technologies to supplant oil or coal, or how to help ghetto kids not fall perilously behind academically before they ever step into a classroom.

But I also suspect that I'm making a mistake waiting for Obama to figure it all out. Somewhere in these next 100, 200 or 1,000 and more days, we've got to exercise some responsibility and help.

Then maybe we can look in a mirror and get, rather than give, report cards.