Barack Obama’s ascendancy still brings to mind popular themes from his campaign—“we want change” and “yes we can”—the liberal analogues of “morning in America.”
But brushing aside the loftier characterizations of the president’s political rise, 100 days in, his deliberate style, his approach to political adversaries, his omnibus economic recovery policies and his Aloha diplomacy can be boiled down to a few time-honored adages, dusted off and refurbished for the fresh administration.
“A stitch in time saves nine.”
Arguing that Americans have no alternative but to make tough choices sooner rather than later, Obama kick-started his legislative agenda with a $700 billion “stimulus package” (the Democrats’ PG-13 rejoinder to Republicans’ “teabagging”), carrying over the Bush-Paulson financial industry bailout and fast-tracking universal health care while fighting two wars. He’s “banking” on a thorough—and expensive—government overhaul as the path to long-term fiscal health. And he’s betting that E.U. parliamentarian Daniel Hennan was wrong when he said, “You cannot spend your way out of recession or borrow your way out of debt.”
It’s both the most prudent and most dicey plank in Obama’s platform. Keynesians are pleased for the moment, but what happens when the Bank of China turns down our next re-fi loan application?
“Haste makes waste.”
Obama is about action. Like the Schoolhouse Rock song goes—Verb: That’s Our President. But at the same time, the president doesn’t like to be rushed.
He rode out weeks of Republican flak while Congress pushed through his stimulus bill. He’s patiently courted the Middle East—tiptoeing up on them via interviews and taped messages before dropping in for a plenary address. He took center stage in front of the hecklers while Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was getting his act together. And when a reporter tried to serve him, questioning his time-released outrage over AIG bonuses, Obama fired back with: “I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”
“Actions speak louder than words.”
The singular foreign policy test for Obama on the immediate horizon is the aggressive advance of the Taliban in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
In past times, bandits and oligarchs alike could count on presidential speeches peppered with tough talk to alert them that they’d bought themselves some trouble. The “axis of evil” tag was a sure tip-off that bullets were getting ready to fly.
Obama’s not giving them quite as much notice.
For the Taliban, one minute they’re walking up the street in downtown Peshawar streaming Obama’s latest podcast on an iPhone, and the next minute there’s an unmanned drone blowing up city hall. For Somali pirates, the last sound they’re hearing is the rippling of the ocean and a distant, “Ca-caw!”
“You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
But respect is currency. Until it’s time to fight, the president wants to keep talking. Between two men of color, a firm dap-up contains as much, if not more subtext as a standard handshake between two gringos in a boardroom.
At their recent summit meeting, the president was able to get his key point across to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in the unspoken Esperanto of the brother man: That soul grip that Obama laid on him was widely misinterpreted as, “Nice to meet you, buddy.” But it actually translates to something more like, “We straight, player … for now.”
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
You can’t win if you don’t play. And the president makes time to drop in on life’s mini-mart to play a proverbial number. Though he’s frequently said to be the beneficiary of favorable coverage and good luck, it’s more accurate to say that Obama makes his own.
You can’t correctly predict the winner of the NCAA tourney unless you’ve made a pick, and your overwhelmingly popular first lady can’t be your not-so-secret secret weapon unless you had the foresight to marry her in the first place.
Even facing the worst slate of crises we’ve seen in generations, Obama still manages to look like he’s having a good time being president—because he probably is. Instead of doing George W. Bush’s guy-you’d-like-to-have-a-near beer-with after Sunday school, or Bill Clinton’s guy-you’d-like-to-have-a-beer-with after a closed-door policy retreat, Obama just taps a keg and has everybody over to watch the game and down a few cold ones.
The biggest difference, so far, is that Obama is just plain working a lot harder than his predecessor. One hundred days into George W. Bush’s administration, they had a family dog, a tax cut, a two-week vacation—and that’s about it.
Sometimes it feels like there’s so much going on in Washington because of Obama’s packed agenda. But it’s also because not a whole lot got done during the preceding eight years. Bush wasn’t very good at walking and chewing gum at the same time—winding down Chrysler and getting a lid back on swine flu would have put the guy right over the edge.
You’ve got to break eggs to make an omelet, and that’s how the president will try to make lemons out of lemonade. A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but after 100 days we’re all becoming experts in Obama 101.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.