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April 29th, 2009
06:51 AM ET

A Centrist’s Defense of Obama’s First 100 Days

John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Previously, he served as Chief Speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.
[cnn-photo-caption image= caption= "John Avlon was director of speechwriting and deputy director of policy for Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign."]

By John Avlon
Special to CNN

Washington’s been crawling with professional partisans who delight in describing the death of President Obama’s post-partisanship at the end of his first 100 days.

For people conditioned to a vision of politics as an ideological blood sport between red states and blue, attempts at building broad coalitions to solve problems can seem saccharine and unsatisfying. Yes, President Obama has found a sometimes rocky transition from the poetry of campaigning to the prose of governing. The rules of Congress are rigged to reward hyper-partisanship, and interest-groups like to pump up the volume in their respective echo chambers.

But President Obama has made a good faith effort to follow through on his promise to end the politics of polarization. It’s only a start – and his rhetoric has often far outpaced his record on this front – but a culture can’t be changed in 100 days. The important thing is for President Obama to keep trying to write the presidential post-partisan playbook – because that’s been the secret of his success to date.

A CNN poll shows that 61% of independents approve of Obama’s job performance, edging toward the administration in the cavernous gap between the extremes. The Gallup Poll shows 62% of independents believe that President Obama is making a sincere effort to work with congressional Republicans, while they see congressional Democrats and Republicans as obstructing bipartisan efforts.

This is far from a blank check for the Obama administration – centrists and independents remain wary of the influence of the liberal House leadership on the Obama legislative agenda, especially on spending and the absence of checks and balances to special interest wish list items. But to this independent observer’s eyes, President Obama has earned a solid B+ in his first 100 days.

Economy: B

President Obama famously inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Things got worse immediately after he entered office, with Wall Street registering a crisis of confidence that cratered on day 50, as the stock market hit a decade low on March 9th. But in the intervening 50 days, the market has rallied as his plans have begun to take hold and Americans’ optimism increases.

The question is ‘at what cost?’ – literally. The House Democrats’ neo-Keynesian spending spree has exploded the deficit to unprecedented levels, straining the logic of the president’s ‘fiscal responsibility’ rhetoric. He’s going to have to work hard in coming months and years to achieve his promised deficit reductions. Pay-Go is a welcome step in the right direction, but he’s going to have to go far beyond his much-ridiculed $100 million in cuts and stand up to Pelosi & Co. to enact entitlement reform.

Energy: B+

Ending America’s dependence on foreign oil is as close to a silver bullet as exists to solving our economic and foreign policy problems – and it’s a goal that enjoys broad support across party lines. The devil is, of course, in the details. President Obama is a believer in Tom Freidman’s Green Economy gospel and he’s investing aggressively in alternative energy technologies like wind and solar which will jumpstart our competitiveness in these emerging industries. There may be a backlash against carbon cap and trade, but Republicans should be reminded that the idea has been supported by the likes of John McCain and Newt Gingrich in the past. The biggest problem is a lack of commensurate funding to expand proven clean energy technologies like nuclear power. We can’t move toward energy independence by fighting with one hand tied behind our backs.

Health Care: Incomplete

All we really know about Obama’s healthcare plan to date is that he will indeed press on with this reform in his first year – the open question is how and whether Senator Specter’s defection will mean the floodgates are open to a government-dominated plan. I’m guessing not. After all, President Obama has already begun reframing the issue away from heartstring anecdotes and toward need to reform healthcare for the sake of long-term fiscal responsibility and international competitiveness. The best carrot-and-stick play going forward would be to pair a public-private healthcare reform with tort reform, giving doctors something to cheer about while declaring independence from the trial lawyer lobby.

Education: C-

We finally have an education president, but Obama’s investments have not been accompanied by promised reforms – especially those that would require standing up to the teachers’ union. Obama directed $90 billion for education over two years in the stimulus bill, but congressional Democrats decided to make a rare and purely political cut by defunding the small but successful DC voucher program. Serving 1,800 inner city students, including two in Sasha and Malia’s class, the program cost only $18 million a year with thousands of parents on the waiting list. “Most of the politicians have choices on where to send their kids to school,” voucher program parent William Rush, Jr. pointed out in the Wall Street Journal. “Why do they want to take our choices away?”

Military Conflicts: A+

The hit on candidate Obama was that he was inexperienced in foreign policy at a time when America was embroiled in two wars. So it may be a surprise to some that the substance of military conflicts has been his young administration’s greatest success. He started off on the right foot by reappointing Defense Secretary Gates and appointing the widely respected retired Marine General Jim Jones as national security adviser.
President Obama quickly depolarized the most divisive issue of this decade – the Iraq war – while doubling down on America’s commitment to defeat al Qaeda and the resurgent Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. And then of course there was the decisive action against the Somali pirates. He’s entirely changed the style of the Bush doctrine, but much of the substance remains the same.

Diplomacy: A-

President Obama has pursued what I call YouTube diplomacy – speaking directly to citizens of the world through new technology and town halls when traveling. He is trying to bypass top-down governments directly and pays special attention to young people. Yes, there have been symbolic missteps – such as the Saudi bow and the Hugo Chavez photo – but America’s reputation is on the mend and our strategic resolve is intact. Contrary to Republican talking points, he hasn’t apologized for America – he has become the best ambassador for the idea that the American Dream is alive and well, which must make dictators nervous as their people take new notice of that old idea: “…only in America.”

Domestic Security: B

Toward the end of the first 100 days, the Obama administration was hit with the emergence of a possible swine flu pandemic, as well as a truly stupid Air Force One photo op which caused people to scatter along the streets of lower Manhattan. The selection of former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano as DHS director was one of the less inspired choices of the Obama administration – someone like NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly may have done more to instill confidence. But President Obama has made it clear that he’s not going to cede the primacy of domestic security to any past administration, and he’s taken a personal interest in developing new strategies to deal with emerging threats like cyber attacks while keeping policies like rendition intact. His initial instinct on the interrogation memos was correct as well – change policy going forward but don’t re-litigate the past. Let’s hope the far-left doesn’t drag his administration down this precedent-shattering path – prosecutions of Bush administration officials would only pour fuel on the still smoldering hyper-partisan era.

The bottom line is that President Obama has begun to earn the confidence of the moderate majority of Americans who voted for him. This trust can still be broken by over-delegating to the liberal Democrat House leadership. But in matters of both style and substance, President Obama is breaking with the left/right, black/white politics of the past, as promised. He is beginning to show that presidents don’t need to be held hostage by hyper-partisan agendas – and he shouldn’t stop now, because the biggest fights are still to come.

Filed under: National Report Card • Politics
soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. WandaTag

    Obama is a #10!! He can speak like no other, thinking 1st before he speaks, he does his homework, he is on top of everything. I thank God and America every day for giving us a great leader.
    Thankyou CNN for also being on top of all the news. My TV stays on CNN. WandaTag an Okie

    April 29, 2009 at 9:29 am |
  2. Tracey

    I think the President Obamma is being bossed & played like a puppet by some very wealthy, rich men that have been pulling his puppet strings and are just telling him what to do and or say and cohersing him to do what they would like, slowly and surely we will see if hopefully he has a mind of his own. It would be nice to have affordable gasoline, medical insurance, and just because the Mexico drug cartels say or do get there guns from the USA that doesnt mean that we should have to be liable for that, it is at the USA border that they are smuggled in. Guns are not bad if you have proper training ,care, and safety with them. I think its fine to go hunting and or target shooting as long as your safe. People that have guns arent stupid,its STUPID PEOPLE that misuse them that have big problems.I would also like my mother and father and my husband and I to recieve our 401k and Social Security when we all retire .

    April 29, 2009 at 8:48 am |
  3. Purple Spider

    Why is such a big deal made about Obama on his "First Hundred Days"? Whose idea is this – his or the news media?
    Give this guy a chance to do his job – he has not been in office long enough.
    It would be nice if he would have more respect for the American people and the Armed Services.
    It would be nice if some of his cabinet had some smarts and not try and change the Constitution – we don't need a revolution!.
    He walked into a mess and is trying to make amends to the rest of the world, but it appears as he hasn't really learned that you can't "hold hands with the enemy"
    I do agreee with what has been said on the news – Obama should not spend further time blaming the "Bush Administration" and move on.

    April 29, 2009 at 7:39 am |
  4. Dan

    Enough already with the report cards! I am disgusted and turned off with self proclaimed experts half of the president's age passing judgement on him–and "Joe the plumber" Republican plants sending in ireports of how he is doing in his first 100 days. Those people should be giving Fs to the former President on his senior finals rather than trying to flunk the President in the first semester of his Freshman year.

    April 29, 2009 at 7:24 am |
  5. Debbie

    All I can say is: Great Job President Obama, and the Obama Administration!

    April 29, 2009 at 7:17 am |