Strong job approval, higher personal ratings"--that's pollster Andrew Kohut's assessment of President Obama at roughly the 100-day point. "A bravura performance," wrote David Broder of the Washingon Post. The president's flacks take the Muhammad Ali approach: Obama is The Greatest. What comes to my mind, however, is the guy who falls off a skyscraper and halfway down declares, "So far, so good."
Maybe there's a soft landing ahead for Obama or even a takeoff as his policies succeed. But my expectations are low. One reason is the Obama contradiction. Two of his stated goals (economic recovery, energy independence) are undermined by his actual policies. Another reason is history. There's no evidence to suggest Obama's policies of courting enemies and airing the country's supposed misdeeds will lessen threats to national security or strengthen America's role in the world.
Obama, for the moment, is riding a wave of announcements, claims, hopes, and possibilities. This is what new presidents thrive on. It's what makes them popular, especially because there's no accountability. But a year from now, perhaps sooner, the joy ride will be over. Results will matter. Obama's policies will either be working or not. And if not, even a friendly media won't be able to sugarcoat the bad news or alleviate the political consequences.
The economy is Obama's biggest problem. According to his projections, a sharp recovery will begin this fall and accelerate in 2010. It's doubtful the president's economic advisers believe this scenario, though they're forced to defend it publicly. The $787 billion "stimulus" package probably won't help because its vast spending is backloaded past next year. And it's not very stimulative in the first place.
It's true the American economy is resilient. Its natural tendency is to grow, leaving recessions behind. What arouses this appetite for growth are incentives to invest that, in time, produce a booming economy and new jobs. But rather than incentives, Obama favors impediments: tax hikes for the investor class, more regulation, higher energy prices. He's created the most antibusiness climate in Washington since the New Deal. The best hope for a robust recovery is the trillions in liquidity that Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke has injected into the economy. That will surely help, but who knows how much, when, or at what cost in inflation.
Like every president since Richard Nixon, Obama has proclaimed energy independence a priority. If all goes well with his plans to rely increasingly on renewable energy (wind, solar, battery-powered electric cars, etc.), the nation could free itself of dependence on Middle East oil in 20 or 30 years.
But what about now? What about the years before the green utopia arrives? Obama is proposing nothing to fill that gap--quite the contrary. He's blocking offshore drilling for oil and gas, including in places (like the Gulf of Mexico) where production could be increased in a few years. He's delayed leases for energy development in the West. Nuclear power? Forget it. Rising gasoline prices may weaken demand, but not enough to reduce the need for Middle East oil.
The president's decision to continue propping up Detroit, particularly General Motors, is a self-inflicted wound. He wants the auto companies to manufacture low-mileage green cars, not the more popular (and profitable) trucks and SUVs. The problem is Detroit loses money on every green car it sells. Meanwhile, GM is closing its factories for the summer. The company, now an appendage of the federal government, is a money pit. Providing more bailout billions for GM seems inescapable. But it will put Obama sharply at odds with public opinion.
In foreign policy, Obama appears confident his overtures to America's adversaries will pay off. In fact, being respectful and accommodating to Iran, Cuba, and others in the hate-America camp is part two of the Obama Doctrine (part one is multilateralism). But as nice as diplomatic deference sounds, it invariably fails. The enemies of freedom and democracy never reciprocate.
Nor are Iran and Cuba in a reciprocating mood. Obama's civility toward Iran, and a key concession in arms talks, have been answered with the jailing of an American reporter, sped-up efforts to produce nuclear weapons, and fresh attacks by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba, he was encouraged by Cuban leader Raúl Castro's willingness to discuss all issues. Within days, Fidel Castro trumped his brother and shot down any prospect of softening Communist rule.
Obama is probably correct that confessing America's sins before the whole world increases our moral standing. But there's a catch. The effect is temporary, and even then it's only in Europe and democratic countries. Enemies, equipped with more fodder for hating America, take advantage. And terrorists, thanks to Obama's statements on torture, now know they can expect an easy time if captured and interrogated.
Presidential honeymoons don't last. Trouble catches up with presidents in many forms: unexpected events, screw-ups at the White House, egregious decisions, failures of policy, and worst of all, a bad economy that lingers. Obama is clever and persuasive, but he's not immune to the way the world works.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.