President Obama’s First 50 Days

Originally published on March 11, 2009, at



The first 50 days of the Obama Presidency have seen a flurry of major legislative activity, historic signing ceremonies, substantial policy speeches and high-stakes politics. In fact, “hit the ground running” doesn’t do it justice, as the President began giving press conferences about his economic plans — sensing the markets were collapsing into the vacuum — in the days leading up to his inauguration.

When Barack Obama was sworn in January 20, 2009, the financial crisis had already engulfed the global economy and given direction to his presidency. The celebrations of the 232 year-old democracy, of its first African American President, and of the orderly and ceremonial transition of authority were quickly consigned to history. Mr. Obama made clear that he believed the current crisis to be a historic one, and that he intended to put the considerable financial resources of the American government in play to stabilize the financial system, support the economy, and aid citizens in need.

That said, what has been astonishing, in reviewing Mr. Obama’s first 50 days, is the speed, force and size of the President’s early efforts. While an assessment should also mention stumblings on high-level appointments and near unanimous Republican opposition to the President’s legislative agenda, this pales in comparison with the scale of Mr. Obama’s accomplishments:

January 20 — In his inaugural address, Mr. Obama pressured congress to put stimulus legislation on his desk in record time.
February 17 — The resulting 787 billion dollar American Recovery and Reinvestment Act contained no congressional earmarks, per the President’s request, yet provides for more than five hundred billion dollars in government spending and hundreds of billions in tax cuts and support of state programs.
February 26 — The administration introduced an annual budget dramatically shifting federal spending priorities towards education, health and energy policies and launched health care reform with 600+ billion in funding.
By executive action the President has raised ethics, transparency, and lobbying standards, begun new policies on treatment of enemy combatants, and ended restrictions on stem cell research funding.
March 10 — As if he wanted to start of the next 50-day sprint off with a bang, the President called for sweeping changes in education.

Elements of Power

Beyond the honeymoon authority of all incoming presidents, Obama’s substantial power results from several factors; the chief among them undoubtedly is the economic crisis. Fed. Bank Chair Ben Bernanke, a scholar of The Great Depression has opined that the U.S. government’s initial failure to act was a contributing cause of the Depression’s depth and length. Bernanke and Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson saw in the credit freeze of late 2008 the potential that the cyclical downturn, compounded by financial collapse, could lead to a much larger protracted economic crisis without government intervention.

Persuaded by this analysis, President Obama came into office prepared to act. Mr. Obama never campaigned for shifting economic power to the public sector or achieving reform of health care in record time. But neither did he display timidity. His ambition and soaring rhetoric bespeak a desire for bold action and significant achievement.

The overwhelming congressional Democratic victory in November offered Mr. Obama a crucial legislative base. Roughly 58% of both houses of Congress are aligned with the President and a few Republican moderates have been willing to work with the Democrats, thwarting the impediment of a filibuster in the Senate.

Also increasing the President’s power is the fact that he has the Federal Reserve, Treasury and economic advisers, an unrivaled economic analysis powerhouse, close at hand on issues that are highly complex and fluid. Congress, too, has hearings and testimony by experts, and the press has access, but this is no match for the President’s daily meetings with advisors. Some Congressional and press deference is likely the result.

Conversely, this may, in part, be responsible for the nearly unanimous opposition by congressional Republicans. As the recent and much derided Republican response by Louisiana Governor Jindal revealed, Republican positions are based on conservative theory, but do not show in-depth analysis of current conditions.

Another important factor is that Mr. Obama has chosen powerful and experienced professionals for his foreign policy team. Secretaries Clinton and Gates and Diplomats Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell bring star stature, sober experience, and appropriate diplomatic skill sets to the foreign policy agenda. Secretary Clinton has already held discussions on North Korean and Iranian nuclear disarmament, yet the President has not been called away from his efforts on the domestic agenda.

Finally, polling has given Mr. Obama approval ratings above 60%. While presidents are not beholden to pubic opinion polls, positive approval ratings do support presidential authority. Journalists get out a president’s message far more effectively when approval is up and focus more on opposition to the president when approval is down. The cumulative result is an administration engaged with experts and open to contrary advice, but with great power to advance the President’s agenda.

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