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One Hundred Days

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Today is President Obama's 100th day in office. Despite the flood of commentary this anniversary invites, the number means little because the world moves according to its own dynamic, unwedded to any calendar.

We should not forget that, although every new American president inherits headaches, President Obama inherited the entire emergency room. The list of perils includes the worst economic crisis in our lifetimes; hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; an ongoing confrontation with al Qaeda; rising nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran; a broken Middle East Peace Process; a potential flu pandemic; the lack of effective international policies on energy and climate change; and that scourge of the 21st century -- Barbary Pirates with cell phones.

The administration is called to meet these challenges despite a depleted treasury, an over-stretched military, an impatient American public, and a deeply divided world. Objectively, the president's job is impossible and certainly, success on many fronts will not be evident in the next one hundred or even the first one thousand days of his term. The fair question is whether, under his leadership, we have begun moving in the right direction.

The answer is yes. First, the president has assembled a strong and experienced national security team. Leaders such as Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton will not shy away from hard problems nor refrain from telling the president what he needs to know. Second, Mr. Obama has hit the right notes internationally by extending an open hand to every country, while showing that he is willing to maintain tough policies where required.

Third, he has made good use of his time -- sitting down with neighbors, touching base with allies, reaching out to potential adversaries, and assigning some of our nation's best diplomats to work on the globe's most complicated challenges. Fourth, he has taken steps to restore America's reputation as a leader on the environment and international law.

Finally, he has wisely avoided the trap of offering a bumper sticker slogan to characterize his approach to the world. Mr. Obama knows that success in foreign policy is usually relative, that few victories are permanent, and that lasting gains require a long term effort. In this context, a slogan can easily become a straitjacket, while the flexibility to approach each issue on its own terms is essential. Pragmatism is both a habit of mind and a strategic necessity.

Even admirers of the president, and I am one, must admit that he has had it easy in one respect. By last January, the world was more than ready for a new face in the White House. Thus, the president was well received during his recent overseas trips both because of who he is and because of who he is not. This second advantage will not last. It is also a legitimate question whether the president is trying to do too much, but the truth is that he has had little choice. A firefighter surrounded by flames cannot ignore the heat coming from any point on the compass.

The toughest tests of this presidency, as Mr. Obama well knows, are still to come. Will our disengagement from Iraq proceed smoothly or be accompanied by fresh outbreaks of sectarian violence? Will our newly invigorated effort in Afghanistan make a decisive difference or drag on for years without a clear result? Will our struggle to engage Pakistan effectively ever bear fruit? Will our overtures to Iran strengthen or weaken our hand in dealing with that pivotal country? Will our promise to lead in curbing climate change be embraced or rebuffed by Congress? Will the first glimmers of economic recovery brighten or prove a false dawn, plunging us into a deeper and ever-broadening cycle of misery?

Likely as not, the answers to these questions will land somewhere in the middle. Many problems are not susceptible to solution, but instead must be managed to create new opportunities while limiting harm. Progress comes not dramatically, but gradually. To smooth the way, President Obama hopes to create a new role for America in a world that no longer feels comfortable following the dictates of any one or two countries. His goal is to lecture less without leading less -- to use words and to adopt a tone that will make it easier for others to join us. This makes sense, because with most countries most of the time, persuasion works better than bullying.

The first one hundred days in a presidency are roughly comparable, arithmetically, to the first one hundred yards in a mile race. If we want President Obama to succeed, as patriotic Americans must, we will look for a runner who is proceeding at a brisk but sustainable pace, with energy in reserve, and a sharp eye for what other competitors may be planning. By that measure, our president may not have won anything yet, but he is off to a reassuring start.

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