Franklin Delano Roosevelt left a mighty legacy after his three-plus terms as an American president. But, unfortunately, his most lasting contribution to American politics has been the focus on a new administration’s First 100 Days. Faced with the Great Depression, FDR actually did need to be in a bit of a hurry to get something, anything, rolling again. But all subsequent presidents have been in fear of appearing indolent layabouts by comparison if they didn’t get cracking on a major initiative or three during that crucial period before the country loses affection, or interest.
And so we come to President Obama, who seems determined to win the “Busiest First 100 Days” competition. By day 60, the question hanging wasn’t, “Is he doing enough?” but, “Is he doing too much?” As in: has he put too many proposals before a work-averse Congress; is he appearing on our televisions too often; and, most potently for the impotent Republicans, is he spending too much money? These are the same Republicans, of course, who winked, nodded and slumped forward into blissful slumber as their beloved George W Bush borrowed hundreds of billions from China to pay for two wars “off-budget” – that is to say, with no obligation to figure out how to afford them. They started worrying about the wallets of their children and grandchildren only when Dubbya was safely back in Texas, picking up (to hear him tell it in China) his own dog’s poop.
Obama’s sprint to the century mark began with some stumbles – a treasury secretary who, like several other cabinet nominees, had tax problems, a “drug tsar” whose kid had a drug problem. At least nobody has turned up with an illegal nanny, which derailed some Clinton and Bush appointments.
As for his ubiquity, Obama as president is a close second to Obama the candidate, with the distinction that the television time is now given, rather than sold, to him. Americans seem to like the idea of a president who is both mellifluous and loquacious. Who would have predicted that? The Republicans, poor dears, have been reduced to mocking the fact that he uses a teleprompter for his speeches.
On foreign policy, the opposition has had slightly more to chew on: Obama shook hands with Hugo Chávez, and the harrumphing on the right has been severe. The conservatives don’t quite say so, but they have raised the spectre of an old American fear: that being the biggest, richest, most militarily powerful country on the planet isn’t enough to intimidate “tin-horn dictators”; we have to yell, scowl and be rude to them, too, to be a really credible Great Power. Obama didn’t get a lot of concrete results at the G20 and Nato summits, and that gave rise to some criticism, but the handshake footage could be endlessly rerun as “wallpaper” on the “news” channels, whereas Bush’s failure to get more combat troops into Afghanistan actually had to be explained. In words. No contest.
In both foreign and domestic policy, the new president seems not only to be concerned about Looking Busy, but also about making sure no one can accuse him of ignoring his campaign promises. Yes, really. So, the things he talked about while campaigning – fixing the health-care system, moving to renewable energy, doubling down in Afghanistan – are, for better or worse, the things he’s actually pushing. What he’s ignoring, like the rebuilding of New Orleans, is what he didn’t talk about (beyond some anodyne boilerplate) during the campaign. Not a dollar of the $790bn stimulus package went into the flood protection system or rebuilding the man-ravaged wetlands of New Orleans. The local office of the Corps of Engineers (the agency that built the levees whose failure caused the 2005 flooding) recently said it was choosing the “technically not superior” solution for one of its new structures, because of insufficient funding. Those words don’t necessarily inspire a feeling of safety and confidence.
Democrats who insisted that Obama cared because: a) his heart was in the right place, b) he’s black, or c) he’s a Democrat, may now be wishing they had insisted on something slightly less vaporous. In the welter of bad economic news, the president’s decision to keep his campaign promise and go deep into the Afghan mire has stirred only muted debate, and even less mockery. The idea that we can simply pick up where we left off (while we trotted over to Iraq) seven years ago, as if no history had occurred in the meantime, seems credible in a country where history is a dismissive insult, as in: “Dick Cheney? He’s history.” That Pakistan is crumbling before our eyes, raising the prospect of a nuclear Taliban, is only murmured about in more thoughtful circles, while the adored General Petraeus (the success of whose “surge” in Iraq was based on paying off the Sunnis for a while) makes an obligatory nod to the many previous foreign invasions of Afghanistan, saying how “we don’t take that history lightly”. That’s a relief.
Obama the man as revealed in these early months makes for a hard target for satirists: he talks well, lovely wife and kids, perfect dog, mean jump shot. I’m still working on his voice, all melodic and Midwestern. But he’s already come up with the three words that may well get hung around his neck as the 100-day mark recedes and the recession grinds on. He repeated them several times as he tried to “talk up” the economy in recent days, while the Dow sank and GM emitted bubbles: “glimmers of hope”. Perhaps by day 101 people were already asking whether they were accompanied by nothing more than “glimmers of change”.
Harry Shearer is a n actor, satirist and musician, best known for his work in the seminal mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap” and for being the voice of more than 12 characters in “The Simpsons”. His last two albums, “Songs: Pointless and Pointed” and “Songs of the Bushmen”, were both nominated for Grammy awards. Spinal Tap will be playing Wembley Arena on 30 June