Opinion The Most Expensive President Since 1945

The new US president's first 100 days in office were expensive, glamorous and often contradictory. Barack Obama has done many things right against a host of intractable problems, but he's made at least two blatant mistakes.
Von Gabor Steingart
US President Barack Obama: How good?

US President Barack Obama: How good?

Foto: AFP

It is often said that the Americans' most successful exports have been rock 'n' roll and Coca-Cola. But nowadays dancing to an Elvis beat is long since passé, and the brownish soda's reputation has always been dubious. A far more successful American export may be the introduction of the practice of appraising every new administration's first 100 days in office. Former US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt hit upon the idea 80 years ago. Since then, every democratic leader in the world has had to submit to a similar assessment of his initial performance.

The 100-day appraisal is more of a sport than a serious political observation. If Obama manages to be elected for a second term, thereby serving the two terms in office permitted under the US Constitution, this week will mark the completion of only 3.4 percent of his time in office. Nevertheless, even dubious habits are just that -- habits.

Here is a report card on Obama's first 100 days in office. As everyone knows, grades are not handed out in the first year of school, but written evaluations certainly are:

Communication -- First Rate

Communication -- First-Rate

In this subject, the new president is truly a world-class performer. In fact we Germans might like to send our chancellor, Angela Merkel, to the White House for a four-week internship under Mr. Obama.

German politicians tend to be insulted when someone disagrees with them. Instead of reflecting on a critic's arguments, their thoughts run to how best to neutralize that critic. Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, for example, marginalized the brightest politician in his Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, Professor Kurt Biedenkopf, while current Chancellor Merkel has given her party's only economic expert, Friedrich Merz, the same treatment.

Obama, by comparison, made arch-rival Hillary Clinton his secretary of state and kept former President George W. Bush's defense secretary in office. He is clearly making an effort to break with traditional notions of partisan politics.

The president has taken a similarly liberal approach to his interactions with journalists. Kohl refused to allow his critics to travel with him on his official aircraft, and Gerhard Schröder, another former German chancellor, was stingy about interviews. Obama, on the other hand, invited his sharpest critics in the media to dinner shortly after his election. The president includes people rather than excluding them. His method is to win over his critics, rather than try to punish them.

Managing the Financial Crisis - Botched

Of all things, the president has performed poorly when it comes to the central political issue of the day. Obama has ignited a dangerous time bomb in the US government's budget. The economic stimulus program and the billions in bailout funds for Wall Street banks are being paid for primarily with borrowed funds. Obama's first 100 days have been the most costly in American postwar history.

Politically speaking, these "rescue packages" have produced the desired initial successes. Obama was able to show spirit and leadership by successfully conducting difficult negotiations on Capitol Hill.

But from a financial standpoint, the United States cannot afford many of these so-called successes. The bailout programs are not being paid for with "taxpayer money," as Obama claims. Instead, the money is coming from the savings of the frugal Japanese, Chinese and Europeans. The United States now needs $1 billion (€760 million) in foreign funds every working day just to maintain its standard of living. The country consumes more than half of all worldwide savings.

Not only is this is costly, but it is also extremely risky. More important, it is not sustainable. By taking this approach, Obama is only leading his country more deeply into dependence on creditors from around the world. Before long, anyone who wishes to attack America will no longer need nuclear weapons, but merely sufficient dollar reserves. China already has close to $2 trillion (€1.5 trillion) stored away in its coffers.

Economic Policy -- Problematic

Things are not exactly adding up when it comes to Obama's economic policy. The effects of economic stimulus packages are usually short-lived. For many people, the government's programs will seem to herald a speedy end to the crisis, but the light at the end of the tunnel will be fueled by burning dollar bills. When the flames subside, darkness will return.

The experience of the 1970s showed that Keynesian economics are ineffective. As early as 1938, John Maynard Keynes himself -- the inventor of debt-financed growth policy -- recognized that the solution of credit problems, and the establishment of easy short-term loans, was merely a prior condition of recovery, not recovery itself.

Healthcare Reform -- Breaking Promises?

The new administration's new ideas sound promising enough. Obama wants to help establish a modern healthcare system in America -- at last. Fifty million people currently have no health insurance. Their situation is hardly better than it might have been during the Middle Ages. In the best case, the ailing uninsured can look to family members for help, and in the worst case, to charlatans.

But there is one thing the president has neglected to tell his fellow Americans. A first-class medical system cannot be purchased at Walmart discount prices. His promises of further tax cuts and health-care reforms are mutually exclusive. He will have to break one of the two promises. Let's hope it will be the right one.

Foreign Policy -- An Embrace

The foreign policy motto of his predecessor could have been: "If you don't want to be my brother, I'll smash your skull." Obama clearly takes a different approach to foreign policy, and if one were to pick a gesture to describe it, it would be the embrace.

In the coming years, people will start asking themselves: What does America get in return? Is it a soft or a hard currency to be open? The answer will most likely be found in Tehran, Beijing and Moscow.

Military Policy -- Contradictory

Commander-in-chief Obama is sending mixed messages. On the one hand, he is taking a dovish approach to the Arabs, extending his hand to Islam and offering a peace pipe to the Russians.

On the other hand, his actions in the war zones of Afghanistan and Pakistan suggest that he is trying to show former Vice President Dick Cheney how to win wars. The US military is adding large numbers of troops to its forces in Afghanistan, while unmanned drones are being used to stage attacks in Pakistan's border region. This approach leads many to wonder who exactly Obama is when it comes to military policy.

His strategy has already bred results, but they are not what he expected. Anti-American sentiment is growing in Pakistan. Violent military action does not forge new democrats, but rather new Taliban fighters. If Pakistan, a nuclear state, falls into the hands of fundamentalists, Obama will have handed the West more than just another defeat.

The CIA and Torture -- No Accountability

The closing of the CIA prison in Guantanamo Bay and the ban on torture in interrogations brought the sinister practices of the Bush years to a necessary end. This deserves respect, but not applause. Obama's America is merely returning to the normal state of a democratic nation governed by the rule of law.

Although the torture practices have been abolished, no one is being called to account. The first good deed must be followed by a second one. After years of arbitrary behavior, the US intelligence community deserves to be scrutinized.

It takes a truth commission to protect against recidivism. US intelligence agencies could use a dose of re-education.

The Worst Staffing Decision

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is increasingly proving to be a weak point in Obama's cabinet. He enjoys strong connections to Wall Street, but instead of controlling bank CEOs he is simply spoon-feeding them. This year, bank bonuses are likely to be twice as high as they were before the crisis. This may be a nuisance during normal times, but today -- in light of the government's bailouts of the banks -- it is nothing short of scandalous.

The Best Staffing Decision

Vice President Joe Biden is the anti-Cheney, helping the president do his job but not seeking to influence him. He's known for his charm as well as his wagging tongue. He embarrassed his boss, for example, when he said of the bailout plans in Washington: "If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, there's still a 30 percent chance we're going to get it wrong."

The Glamour

The glitz factor is currently high in Washington. The somewhat dowdy Laura Bush was replaced by Michelle Obama, who has a penchant for colorful and breezy outfits. Washingtonian magazine recently ran a cover story titled "Our New Neighbor is Hot" -- accompanied by a photo of the president himself in a bathing suit.

The Bottom Line

So far, the Obama presidency is as contradictory as reality. No one today can say whether he will end up being the president he wants to be. Presidents develop in office.

Many US newspapers speak admiringly of Obama, calling him "larger than life." But that too remains to be seen. Perhaps life will turn out to be larger than Obama.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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