IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The good and the bad of Obama’s first month

Barack Obama took the oath of office one month ago Friday, a day when he was greeted by adoring throngs. They expected big things from the man who railed against the last eight years. So how has he done?
Obama Mayors
Perceptions of President Barack Obama's performance during the first month of his administration depend on the point of view.Charles Dharapak / AP

Barack Obama took the oath of office exactly one month ago Friday, a day where he was greeted by adoring throngs. They expected big things from the man who railed against the last eight years, particularly on the economy.

So how's he done?

It depends on your point of view, of course, but one thing folks on both sides can agree on is that it has certainly been one whirlwind of a first 30 days. Everyone knew going in that the problems were big, the problems were mounting and that the inbox for the incoming president was overflowing.

So far, the country and even the world are still engaged in pretty much anything this president does. The Blackberry-clutching candidate joked on the campaign trail that a president needs to multitask.

Well, he’s gotten his shot at it so far. It’s been a rapid-fire month of successes and pitfalls.

He's even been able to hold onto that Blackberry, something he would consider a success.

The pluses
He won the biggest fight so far. History will record that the 44th president passed the largest economic bill in the history of the country, and he did so in under a month while retaining high approval numbers. Not an easy feat in this 24-7, live-blogging, always-Twittering media culture.

Obama was also able to enact Democratic agenda items like signing the Lilly Ledbetter pay equity bill, as well as signing children's health care — vetoed twice during the Bush years.

Obama’s election and inauguration gave him tremendous good will, which he capitalized on to push through his top campaign priority. The trick now is to convince the public to give his stimulus program some time to work. It's something the White House is mindful of, and so are the Republicans.

In fact, congressional Republicans have been surprisingly unified and combative with the new president. In many respects, while they lost the stimulus battle, they’re still engaging in a spin war about whether it can work. And we may not know for sure who wins this spin war until Election Day 2010 (or even 2012).

The minuses
However, Obama’s attention to the big picture may have gotten him in trouble with all the small stuff. There were a myriad of small flames below the clouds.

They lost the spin war at the outset of the stimulus when zero House Republicans voted for the plan.

The Obama team members set themselves up to be graded on this bipartisan stuff, since they made such a big play for it. And it really hurt that Republican Judd Gregg, a true conservative, withdrew his name from the much-maligned commerce secretary post (still vacant, by the way).

Politically, it's not such a bad thing to attempt to reach out as long as the White House doesn't find itself compromising to the point of losing some base Democrats. So far, that hasn’t happened — even though there have been some rumblings from the Left.

The days of the nominee tax problems — particularly those of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who was supposed to be the White House’s health-care shepherd — were the darkest for the president. He was losing the stimulus spin war, and then perhaps his most loyal supporter and key ally. Without Daschle, it’s hard to picture Obama winning all of those superdelegates.

Embarrassingly, on the same day Daschle and Chief Performance Officer-designate Nancy Killefer withdrew, the president was forced into a prime-time round of “I screwed up” mea culpas, instead of selling his stimulus bill on the evening news programs, as was originally planned.

Former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, who led the Obama transition, confessed Friday that he knew of the problems and that he, well, “screwed up.”

"I take the blame for this,” he told Bloomberg News. “We may have made bad judgments like in the case of Nancy Killefer or some of the others, but it wasn't that we weren't aware of the issues."

There are many inside the White House relieved Podesta has owned up to some of these transition issues.

Other minuses: There were those pesky lobbying exceptions, like Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, who lobbied for Raytheon. Yes, these lobbying rules set the bar higher than any other president, but you can’t simply break your own rules so blatantly in the same week you annouce them.

And there was Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s rollout of the second part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which at best got a tepid reception.

In the long run, most of these minuses likely will be remembered as the hiccups involved in getting a team in place. But so much for the fastest transition in history. There are still countless important deputy-level and below positions that have not been filled. And those are the people who really roll up their sleeves and help run the government.

The compromiser
There were also missteps where Obama felt compelled to give in a bit. We learned first-hand how Obama's “middle-ground stall tactics” approach works.

For example, how many “reviews” or “task forces/summit” propositions have we seen?

Guantanamo is a classic example. The president pacified the Left by signing an executive order saying the prison camp will be closed in a year. But no one knows exactly how that’s going to happen.

On Afghanistan, instead of answering exactly what he will do, the White House deployed the old (new) “policy review” line. It also set up a blue ribbon task force on what to do about the car industry.

This White House is very good at making it seem as if it's made a tough decision, when it is really just buying time to figure out what to do.

One thing is for sure, the press is taking note and keeping tabs. By one measure, in this past month, Obama has kept 15 of his promises, compromised on three (two tax credits and tougher lobbying rules) and broken two (allowing five days of public comment before signing bills and creating a $3,000 tax credit for companies that add jobs). This is according to Politifact, a joint fact-checking venture between the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly.

And that’s just month one
There’s a whole lot more to come: domestic priorities like housing, health care and climate change; the impending labor-business fight over “card check”; the complicated foreign policy entanglements of Afghanistan (troop increases and ramped-up violence) and redeployment from Iraq; Iran’s larger-than-expected uranium stockpile; North Korea’s long-range missile and satellite tests; and the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict.

That’s just to name a few.

Republicans, for their part, have been wholly unimpressed with the president’s first month. In an e-mail blasted out to reporters this morning, they stressed Obama’s first month was “disappointing ... marked by wasteful spending, failed bipartisanship and questionable ethics.”

But ask yourself this, what will be remembered — Killefer’s taxes, field mice and Bill Lynn’s lobbying (all mentioned in the opposition research)? Or that Obama got a more than $700 billion bill through Congress in less than a month? And, most important to both sides, whether it works at all.

The challenge
That the past month could seem more active than the Bush White House's last two years is a challenge for Obama, particularly in the fastest news cycle anyone’s ever seen. It’s 24-7 and not just cable anymore, but also instantaneous live-blogging and Twittering by the punditry.

The speed is the natural evolution of things, considering that campaigns have been getting more and more of this non-stop coverage in recent years. Still, incremental up-down rulings by the punditocracy (most notably business pundits) on Obama's first month are a message-handling challenge for this White House.

Convincing the public there are no easy fixes to challenges like the economy, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as staying out front of a policy agenda, is much more difficult in this environment.

For now, the White House has chosen to deal with it by flooding the zone. Instead of pushing a single storyline a week, they try to sell multiple messages.

Can the Blackberry White House keep up the pace?