The Public Eye: The Challenges Ahead for President Obama

By Bob Burnett
Wednesday February 04, 2009 - 06:21:00 PM

During his first 100 days in office, President Obama faces daunting problems, including a deteriorating economy and two wars. On May 1, how can we tell whether he is doing a good job, given that Bush set the bar so low? 

Two recent national polls present slightly different views of Obama’s challenges. The Jan. 22 Pew Research poll asked Americans what the president’s priorities should be. The top 10 were the economy, jobs, terrorism, social security, education, energy, Medicare, deficit reduction, and health insurance. The Jan. 19 Gallup poll constructed Obama’s to-do list based upon public perception of his campaign promises. Their top 10 included children’s health insurance, alternative energy, healthcare costs, infrastructure spending, working family taxes, Iraq, Afghanistan, stem-cell research, Guantanamo, and the rights of unions to organize. 

These polls indicate that Americans want our new president to focus on domestic issues, so that’s what’s discussed here. Obama’s dominant domestic challenge is the economy, which is reflected in the poll respondents’ concerns about job creation, healthcare and energy costs, tax reduction for working families, and the solvency of Medicare and Social Security. In his Jan. 5 column, economist Paul Krugman observed, “Let’s not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression.” In the next 100 days, economic conditions are likely to get worse; forecasts indicate the national unemployment rate—7.2 percent in December—will slide above 10 percent. The key economic problems are painfully apparent: consumers and businesses aren’t spending money; banks aren’t lending; and manufacturers are cutting back production. 

Before May 1, there are four major steps Obama should take. First, he should follow through on his concrete campaign promises. For example, he should cut taxes for 95 percent of working Americans. Such an action would have a primarily psychological impact—tax cuts don’t stimulate the economy as much as infrastructure spending—but send a signal that Obama intends to keep all of his campaign promises. In the same vein, he should strengthen Social Security and increase the number of children eligible for Medicare. 

Second, our new president should sign job-creation legislation—a good first step would be the economic stimulus bill being considered by the Senate. Because the problems are systemic, this won’t bear results by May 1. Even before the onset of the recession, the Bush Administration didn’t create good jobs—they averaged 375,000 new jobs per year versus the Clinton administrations 2.9 million new jobs per year. Fewer jobs were created in the Bush era, the quality of these jobs was poor, and the number of underemployed increased. Obama must launch a long-term job-creation strategy and Americans must be patient. 

Obama has to sell Americans on his recovery and reinvestment plan, which emphasizes investment in the U.S. infrastructure; not only repairing our nations deteriorating roads and bridges, but also “modernizing more than 75 percent of federal buildings and improve the energy efficiency of two million American homes, saving consumers and taxpayers billions on our energy bills.” Much of the Obama job-creation plan has the dual emphasis of creating jobs while reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil. At the moment, public support for this plan splits along party lines: 73 percent of Democrats support it, 59 percent of Republicans oppose it, and Independents split, 46 percent in favor and 40 percent opposed. Obama has to get this plan passed by Congress, allocate most of the funds to infrastructure improvement, and generate bipartisan support for his recovery strategy. 

Because new jobs will not be created instantaneously, during the next 100 days increasing numbers of Americans will be unemployed, struggling to pay their mortgages and put food on the table. Obama’s third task will be to strengthen the social safety net: extend and expand unemployment insurance, provide relief to struggling homeowners, and guarantee access to healthcare. While Obama’s recovery plan wisely emphasizes “green” jobs, these will require new training programs and strengthening of America’s educational infrastructure, in general. 

President Obama’s fourth task will be straightening out a dysfunctional banking/financial system. The problem isn’t only that banks aren’t lending but that too often their strategy is dictated by greed rather than considerations of the common good. Obama must institute a new round of financial regulations, develop a strategy to deal with toxic assets such as sub-prime mortgages, oversee the dispersion of “bailout” funds to both spur lending and protect homeowners threatened by foreclosure, and deal with the problem of executive compensation, which has spurred many of the excesses. 

While these four metrics can be used to measure Obama’s domestic success over the first 100 days, the national psyche is also important. According to the Gallup Poll, 77 percent of Americans have negative consumer confidence and 78 percent are dissatisfied with the “state of the nation.” By May 1, both of these metrics should improve, as Americans come to the realization that economic conditions are getting better. If Obama is successful, Americans will continue to believe in his message of hope and opportunity. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley activist. He can be reached at