UPDATE: Despite the issues that arose this week around Daschle and Killefer's tax problems, I stick with my assessment that Obama has been handling these challenges exceptionally well. "Embracing error" as he did over the Daschle appointment helps to diffuse opposition and lays the blame where it belongs -- with the President who appointed these folks. But you could tell Obama was angry and disappointed!
In his first two weeks in office, President Barack Obama has raised the bar high for future presidents. Not in a very long time have we witnessed this degree of organization and efficiency in a new president and his administration. Bill Clinton's first 100 days (not to mention his first 10) were fraught with mixed signals and mistakes. He didn't have an Attorney General until March. George W. Bush's first 100 days were spent in an effort to persuade Americans he was legitimately the President after the Supreme Court's silent coup.
President Obama has not only shown a high degree of organization, but his tone and political ear have been, well, what's the opposite of tone-deaf? Pitch perfect? His success in these first two weeks has forever changed our expectations of a new President and how he or she should behave.
Some of the ways in which Obama has raised the bar are as follows:
1) His Transition Team was highly effective and pretty leak-proof. Teams of up to 50 people had been assigned months before to analyze the departments and agencies and recommend, not only names of potential leaders, but ideas for reform. Just the example of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) alone show not only thoroughness but discretion. What have you heard about those agencies and their work from the Transition Team? Not much and that's the good news. Both are huge government bureaucracies and while there are many opportunities for reform, there are also thousands of people doing their job and doing it well. Leaking ideas about reform would serve no purpose at this point other than to raise fears and expectations without any basis of follow-through.
2) He has kept "drama' to a minimum. Although there have been several appointments that were handled awkwardly (e.g. Hillary Clinton to the State Department, Leon Panetta to CIA, Bill Richardson to and then out of Commerce), Obama did not allow himself to get mired in the debate. Obama's team refused to comment and that left the press without much to comment on for attribution and the issues dried up and died.
3) His actions been highly symbolic but mainly satisfying to his political base.
Obama ...spent the (first) day planning to push his $800 billion stimulus package in the house and senate. His first phone calls as president were made to leaders in the Arab world. He also placed limits on lobbyists and froze the salaries of White House employees making more than $100,000 a year as a gesture to stop frivolous spending in Washington.
On his second day, he signed an order to close Guantanamo Bay and, together with his new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, announced George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke as special envoys to troubled areas of the world. Few presidents in modern history have burst out of the starting gate with so much force.
4. He has made substantive and important decisions, quickly and decisvely. A real decider. And on the subsequent 10 or so days, in no particular order, he has been to Congress several times to meet, not only with his Democratic supporters but also with Republican leadership and has invited them to the White House as well; he has invited CEOs to the White House to hear their views on the economy; he has established daily briefings on both Security and the Economy; he has named all but one of his Cabinet appointments ; he has visited his daughter's school; he had a cocktail party for both Republicans and Democrats after Republicans failed to support his Stimulus bill; he has won praise from many sides the political spectrum for his bipartisan appointments.
The first bill he signed was the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; he reversed the Global Gag Rule for family planning and abortion services; he gave his first interview to an Arab news network, Al Arabiya which drew widespread praise from Arab and Muslim leaders alike; and that is only a partial list. It doesn't even include the new Middle Class Task Force he established on Friday January 30th to be headed up by Vice President Joe Biden.
Not that either the Left or the Right has been completely satisfied with some of this. They have not. To mention a few things - pulling family planning out of the stimulus package; appointing some lobbyists when he said he would not; saying "I Won" to Republicans; giving Rush Limbaugh a platform; failing to incorporate some of the Republican ideas for stimulus. This may just mean he is really doing something right.
But the image of a President rolling up his sleeves (literally) and getting to work on time and staying late; speaking through a Press Secretary (Robert Gibbs) who is knowledgeable, has his ear, and funny to boot; a First Family and First Lady who have kept themselves out of the spotlight these first two weeks despite many demands from the public for more, more, more....all this has not been seen in recent memory
How has Obama accomplished all this? Three main reasons: 1) He believes in and rewards organization and efficiency; 2) He makes decisions and sticks with them; 3) He trusts experience and has selected people around him who have it, who have learned from the mistakes of previous Administrations, and who are flexible enough to change.
The question that remains is - will this translate into real change? Does this forever raise the bar for future Presidents? Who if anyone could do this better - now or in the future?