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January 23rd, 2009
11:59 PM ET

A great start, many questions

Program Note: Tune in tonight to hear more from David Gergen on AC360° at 10pm ET.

David Gergen | Bio
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Political Analyst

In his first three working days in office, Barack Obama has seized the reins of presidential power in smooth, almost flawless fashion. Whether that will be enough to conquer the forces arrayed against him, however, remains very much open to question.

On the economy, his most urgent challenge, he has followed up quickly on transition planning by bringing in bipartisan leaders of Congress today and will soon hold a special meeting with Congressional Republicans alone. One of the first mistakes of some past presidents has been to dismiss the concerns of the opposition. Because Obama has gone far beyond tradition, GOP leaders left the White House this morning endorsing his call to have a stimulus bill by the President’s Day recess in February.

Even so, chances remain high that the President’s economic plans will hit serious snags in Congress and even if passed, may not work. Democrats in the House, where partisanship has been rancorous, seem little inclined to seek a truly bipartisan stimulus bill, as Obama has wanted. And while some Senate Democrats are trying to re-craft the House bill to make it more pleasing to Republicans, others like Dick Durbin are now airily saying that it makes little difference how many Republicans sign on. (Perhaps they are taking a cue from Obama himself, who reportedly made it clear to the GOP at the White House today that he was in charge of negotiations because “I won”.) If partisan attitudes take hold on both sides, Obama can kiss off his hopes of getting dozens of Republicans on board in the House and more than 20 Republicans in the Senate – and in turn, the bipartisanship he needs on TARP, Detroit, and many other bills to come will be progressively tougher.

An even larger concern is whether the stimulus package will truly work but instead, as columnists Paul Krugman and David Brooks worry about in the New York Times today, will be too slow and too filled with pork, leading to scandals down the road. The Obama team promised Congressional leaders today that 75 percent of the bill would be pumped into the economy within two years and that they would impose strict oversight. We shall see. So far, one of the biggest questions hanging over the new administration is its managerial capacity. A typical comment in D.C.: They have wondrous all-stars on board, but where are the managers? And where are the CEOs who know how to make things happen in the business world? Insiders will be watching closely as this economic saga unfolds.

Meanwhile, Obama has also gotten off to a near textbook start in foreign policy. In quick succession, he is unwinding the Bush policies and approaches that have drawn intense criticism both at home and abroad: Iraq, Guantanamo, torture, the Middle East, and the centrality of the State Department more generally. By fulfilling his campaign promises so quickly, Obama is increasing public confidence in his international leadership – something that could have a spill-over effect in bolstering confidence in his economic plans, as well.

For critics of the Bush years – and that includes many mainstream foreign policy players - yesterday was as close to perfect as one can imagine. Not only did the President reverse policies on Guantanamo but he did so carefully by setting up a six-month review to ensure that the process of shutting it down and settling the future of detainees does not unleash a bunch of red-hot terrorists (example: the former Gitmo detainee who has emerged as the deputy leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen).

Moreover, the President and Vice President both went to the State Department on the first day that Hillary Clinton was there as Secretary of State, signaling to Foreign Service officers, demoralized by budget cuts and marginalization in recent years, that they will be central to his international policies in coming years. As one who worked briefly at State during the Clinton years, I can personally attest that this kind of attention will be a huge shot in the arm among career officers.

Then, too, Obama and Clinton announced yesterday the appointment of two superior diplomats as special envoys: George Mitchell to the Middle East, Richard Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan. How good are they? Well, each of them has been a serious candidate to be Secretary of State in his own right. Had Hillary Clinton been sworn in as President this week, it is highly likely that Holbrooke would have been her choice as SecState. Mitchell and Holbrooke were responsible for two of Bill Clinton’s biggest successes, the first in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland, the other in negotiating a settlement in Bosnia. Remember that George W. Bush didn’t pay much attention to the Middle East at first and always rejected the idea of a special envoy there. Obama has jumped in feet first in his first 72 hours on the job.

Still, the question remains: will these early moves by Obama actually start to put out the fires in these parts of the world? We won’t know for a long time – and until he makes some very tough calls that could go awry. Will the Clinton-Mitchell team pressure Israel to make major concessions, as Israeli conservatives now fear, and if so, will Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria call off their terror tactics? Can anyone put all the genies back in the bottle? No one knows.

And then again, there are the growing questions about how well the Obama administration can manage itself. From afar, the lines of authority among the White House, Clinton, Mitchell and Holbrooke seem very tangled. Who will manage all these heavyweights who have minds and egos of their own? His staff says that Obama can do it, but isn’t that what they say about managing his economic team, too?

So, even as he wins deserved praise for his smooth start as President, more questions than answers are swirling around Barack Obama. He seems to understand them and, still a surprise, he also seems to remain totally confident about the future. We have all started a crucial journey.

soundoff (203 Responses)
  1. kristen farlow

    David, love your blog. Please write more!

    Has it ever been explained by anyone on the Obama team how they will impose "strict oversight" on the stimulus package? That seems like quite a job. A needed job for sure, but a huge job.

    January 26, 2009 at 1:15 pm |
  2. David E. Brown

    Mr. Gergen,

    Thank you for your thoughtful observations.

    Supporting the positives, but suspending judgement on the implementation and follow-up seems a healthy attitude for an objective observer at this point.

    I would differ with you a bit on the bipartisanship issue. While I agree that the Congressional Democrats may be allowing their resentment over past tactics from across the aisle show a bit too much in their rhetoric, I find it appropriate for President Obama to respond to the aggression of the GOP with a clear reminder that he has the mandate from the electorate, not they. Once that is clearly understood, he is in a better position to invite their positive participation and call them on their obstructionism. I have little doubt that he will do well at both.

    I'm reminded of his briefing from General Petraeus during the campaign, and his firm but respectful assertion of control over that moment, as well as how he set the atmosphere for the positive exchange of views that ensued between them. I knew then that he was the right man for the job.

    He well understands that when people have an opportunity to understand that he has listened to and respected their positive contributions, he will be able to join forces with them on the common objectives which will always be there. I expect him to always be respectful but firm.

    January 25, 2009 at 8:42 pm |
  3. robyncaffrey keyser west virginia

    ya know for all that it's worth !

    im happy that he gets to keep the ( black berry) as 2 years ago in washington, they had that shooting at that school campus' and the washinton lady cop was shot, to death, and the one girl snuck into the bathroom and was able to tex her mother who was at home , "' and the mother alerted the police. and also remember' barack oboma has to let down his wife and kids, and i think if he has to , he will cash in his vetro from entering the WHITE HOUSE he ( wont ) everybody has to keep the hope & prayers and everyonce in a wile' ( through a congratulations to him, ) on how he's acheeving ( PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA ) will change AMERICA" YES WE CAN

    January 25, 2009 at 8:40 pm |
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