President Obama, at the end of his 100th day in office, admitted to the nation and to the world that he was surprised by all the monumental problems that have converged on his desk all at once.
“I am surprised … by the number of critical issues that appear to be coming to a head all at the same time,” he said. “You know, when I first started this race, Iraq was a central issue, but the economy appeared on the surface to still be relatively strong. There were underlying problems that I was seeing with health care for families and our education system and college affordability and so forth, but obviously, I didn't anticipate the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.”
Despite the problems, Obama reached this artificial milestone with high approval and popularity ratings among average Americans, whom he was savvy enough to thank on Tuesday night. “I want to thank the American people for their support and their patience during these trying times, and I look forward to working with you in the next hundred days, in the hundred days after that, all of the hundreds of days to follow to make sure that this country is what it can be.”
The 100-day mark has been a frenzy of grades and report cards for the new administration. With most Americans giving him high marks for his early efforts. Obama used the occasion to do a little self-grading, insisting that despite all the pitfalls ahead, “We are off to a good start.” It was hard to argue with that assessment because politically Obama is in remarkably good shape with the American people with a 68 percent approval rating in the latest CBS-New York Times poll. The question is, what will he do with all that capital? Is it enough in these very tough times?
This prime-time presser was notable in that it placed renewed focus on foreign affairs. While job loss, the financial market tumbles and Beltway legislative battles have dominated the narrative of the first 100 days, the president seemed all too conscious that he’s “got two wars to think about.” In fact, as a candidate, Obama prided himself on his fluency with international relations and felt less sure about economic challenges. So he was comparatively at ease when reporter questions cycled back to troop levels and political progress in Iraq, the incursion of the Taliban into Pakistan and the security of that nation’s nuclear arsenal. The president said he was “gravely concerned” about the situation in Pakistan and that the nation’s army is making strides on addressing the internal threat. And even this renewed focus on our foreign footprint may be another sign of American confidence in Obama's handling of the economy.
The president kept his opening remarks brief, a departure from the professorial lead-ins to his previous prime-time press conferences. While the press and viewers at home have become used to his contemplative responses, Obama’s seemed slightly more relaxed than usual.
But over and over again, Obama let on that the job has been far more demanding than he had anticipated. He said that while a new administration in typical times would face two or three big problems, he faced seven or eight, some of which he would have happily passed on if the private sector were in a position to fix them. “If you could tell me right now that, when I walked into this office that the banks were humming, that autos were selling,” he said, “…and that all you had to worry about was Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, getting health care passed, figuring out how to deal with energy independence, deal with Iran, and a pandemic flu, I would take that deal.”
In almost check-box fashion, the president had a chance to deal with nearly all the important issues during the course of the evening: torture, abortion, auto bailouts, immigration, the disproportionate effect the recession has had on black communities, the defection of Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter to the Democratic Party and the state of his relationship with the congressional GOP.
He said he believed that water-boarding was torture, but would not say in so many words that he believed that the Bush administration sanctioned torture: “I believe that water-boarding was torture. And I think that the—whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake.”
He declared that the United States would resist calls to close the border with Mexico because of the swine flu epidemic, though he refused to call it swine flu, and in almost motherly tones, he advised Americans to deal with this flu the way they have dealt with others in the past. “Keep your hands washed; cover your mouth when you cough; stay home from work if you're sick; and keep your children home from school if they're sick.”
When the administration planned this prime-time press conference, a move meant to wrest control of the 100-day milestone that the media was bent on observing, no one on Obama’s team could have known that on Day 100 things would be going quite so swell politically. (Although, perhaps, recruiter in chief Vice President Biden had an inkling.) Arlen Specter's surprise party switch potentially so strengthened Obama's hand that he chose to down play it while reminding Republicans that their troubles are not just with him but with the voters.
“I want them to realize that me reaching out to them has been genuine,” he said. “I can't sort of define bipartisanship as simply being willing to accept certain theories of theirs that we tried for eight years and didn't work and the American people voted to change.”
Translation: I won. You lost. If you want to play, it's with my ball.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root. Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.