It must be good for any President of the United States, or other freshly-minted leader, to be free of his “first 100 days.” For this is the period through which he faces his most forensic examination, by journalists and others who may be genuinely curious about what makes him tick. It is also the period for which he can be least prepared, and through which his allies are most anxious.
On the other hand, the new president has the benefit of a “honeymoon,” in which hope may still have the advantage over reason. Many who voted against him are now hedging: maybe he won’t be as bad as they feared. After all, he must lead the whole country now, not just one very interested Party. And the sheer novelty of the new face, or by now a known face in a new role, counts for some abeyance of judgement.
On the third hand, honeymoons are not always happy. The phenomenon of “buyer’s remorse” is associated with seeing something one has purchased in a new light. What seemed so enchanting in a shop window may look rather tawdry when we get it home, especially in the moment when we realize that it is non-returnable. Thus a plunge from public favour may be very sudden, and its consequences may endure.
With these tests in mind, I think Barack Obama came quite well out of his first 100 days. The personal qualities that got him elected do transfer to elected office, in his case. He is eloquent and unflappable; he is unreadable yet outwardly consistently charming; he looks close up when at a distance, and at a distance when close up; he is smooth and ruthless in the pursuit of his political goals. He has, as we already knew, the gift of charisma with crowds, the seemingly magical ability to embody sweet reason even when making statements entirely hollow of substance. There is something very presidential in that.
I was especially impressed with the way he remained “above the fray” when one cabinet appointment after another proved to be a dog. Somehow it wasn’t Obama’s mistake; somehow it became the fault of the person he had appointed. The new president had the gift of making himself invisible at will; though it should be said that he depends on supine mass media to accomplish this trick.
His most impressive performance, to my mind, was his recent speech at Notre Dame University. The large Catholic constituency in the United States, which once “belonged” to the Democrat Party in a sociological way, when class issues were to the fore—and the dividers were established v. unestablished, management v. union, rich v. poor—has shifted Republican through the “culture wars.” This is because, for the last two generations, Catholics have “arrived” economically, and the national issues have changed. Those culture wars are essentially Christian v. post-Christian (or increasingly, anti-Christian), and it has become obvious which party leans which way.
For Obama as candidate, as for Obama as president, one of the most important political tasks has been neutralizing that Catholic constituency. The selection of Joe Biden as running mate was an astute manoeuvre to this end. But the speech at Notre Dame was a master-stroke.
Aware that his own support for abortion and his similar “progressive” ethical stances on all other life and social issues were what made him most alien to Catholic and traditionally Christian voters, he went to work fashioning a wedge. Just getting the leading Catholic university in the U.S. to confer an honorary degree on him—given his uncompromising “pro-choice” positions—was a major accomplishment. For, by granting this the powers at Notre Dame themselves drove a tremendous wedge, on President Obama’s behalf, into the heart of their own community, dividing those who were appalled by their decision from those who were not appalled.
But I watched the speech itself—given the kind of live mass coverage that commencement speeches seldom receive—with a kind of admiring horror. In a few short minutes of sophistical artistry, Obama had changed the issue from whether we should allow the killing of babies, to whether we should tolerate the sort of people who are against such things. And then, by declaring that we should, indeed, tolerate such people, he harvested the general applause.
Here is a man who will in fact change America. I flinch at what it will become.