I am a great fan of presidents and presidencies, and have been since I took a class called “The American President” as an undergraduate at the University of Missouri in the early 1980s.
Of course, Ronald Reagan was in the Oval Office then, and the nation was just awakening from what historians have come to call the “malaise” of the Carter years. Runaway inflation. A 444-day hostage crisis in Iran. A president who just didn’t look, well, presidential.
Our nation in 1979 had become an indecisive (albeit powerful), clumsy giant. And love him or loathe him, Reagan changed all that and restored America’s aura of international pre-eminence.
Now comes Barack Obama.
Like Reagan, he’s tall, handsome and infectiously optimistic. Both seem to see opportunities where others see sure catastrophe. When thinking of Reagan, I am reminded of a story from Peggy Noonan’s “What I Saw at the Revolution,” where she fondly compares his optimism to that of the little boy who digs through a massive pile of poop because there must be a pony in there somewhere.
So it seems with Obama.
Digging feverishly through the mess that was left for him by his predecessor, he seems unsinkably upbeat. Iraq. The Patriot Act. Legalized torture in the name of the greatest nation the world has ever seen.
Obama, like Reagan, rode into office on a wave of grassroots popularity and an international lust for leadership so undeniable you could almost feel it in the air.
Was Reagan perfect? Certainly not. Some of his policies (though never the man) were considered mean-spirited and hostile to the interests of the urban poor.
Similarly, Obama, even at this early stage, has made some major missteps, chief among them, hiring a Secretary of the Treasury (read: Big Boss of the Internal Revenue Service) who didn’t pay his taxes. There were other appointment screw-ups that made Obama’s young administration look unsure on its new and wobbly legs.
But the central verdict of President Obama’s first 100 days in my view is that he has turned around our collective descent into acceptance of the Great Recession and the inevitability of a 100 Years War in Iraq in record time.
Sure I’m concerned that he is spending like a madman. What sane person isn’t? But any honest observer knows that the spending began when the former president walked almost sheepishly out onto the White House lawn last fall and asked the American people for $700 billion to avoid a global economic collapse.
Last week an Associated Press-GfK poll showed that for the first time in years, more Americans than not say the country is on the right track. Americans are smart. We know that times are tough and that there is no quick fix. But Obama’s bold actions in his first 100 days have renewed our collective spirits: he quickly ended the shame that was Guantanamo Bay, he passed a law supporting equal pay for women, he opened up new lines of potentially life-saving stem cell research, and, without fanfare, he gave the order to shoot to kill the three pirates who dared take an American ship captain hostage.
We have a leader who is smart and engaged and who inspires confidence and optimism in the prospects for the long-term health and stability of our country.
Students of leadership will tell you that this intangible ability, coupled of course with sound judgment on the big issues, is the essential element of a successful American presidency.
Ben Holdenis Vice President and Executive Editor of the Ledger-Enquirer