What Obama faces the next 100 days

Chiefs of staff to three former presidents caution that the realities of governing will increasingly set in, perhaps forcing the president to pare down his ambitious agenda.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel talked on his cell phone, while President Obama reposed in the Oval Office on an important day (Feb. 11) for the stimulus bill on Capitol Hill.
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President Obama has earned a decent report card in his first 100 days. In the next 100, seasoned analysts say, he'll start to earn his salary.

"The initial honeymoon settles into a good marriage," says Ken Duberstein, who served as White House chief of staff to President Reagan. "It is a time of adjustment, it is a time of tweaking, it is a time of not just romance but of living together."

It is also the time when campaign promises and good intentions run headlong into the challenges of governance. Priorities must be paid for, compromises reached, consensus sustained and some goals, inevitably, set aside.

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"What the chief of staff will say is, 'Mr. President, from a congressional standpoint, the market will only bear so much freight,' " says Mack McClarty, who served as chief of staff to President Clinton. "You will have to sequence some of this."

That's a message presidents seldom want to hear, especially when memories are fresh of crowds cheering the vision set forth on the hustings.

"When you're a candidate, it's a lot easier to suggest things, and when you're a president you've got to execute," says Samuel Skinner, who was chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush. "We're seeing the reality of the presidency settle in."

Mr. Obama inherited grinding and inconclusive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the worst economic crisis – domestic and global – in at least a generation, and the worst financial meltdown – again, at home and abroad – since the Great Depression.

Against that grim backdrop, he has built tremendous momentum.

Obama entered the second week of April with 62 percent of the public approving the way he's doing his job, according to the Gallup Poll. That was down from his 67 percent inaugural high, but still at "honeymoon" level, according to Gallup.

Few people expect that momentum to grind to a halt. No honeymoon, though, lasts forever.

"The first 100 days is a great time to seize the moment, and they clearly have done that," says Mr. Skinner. "It gets a little harder as time goes on, and the euphoria and the energy of a new administration kind of wears off. It never becomes routine, but it becomes a more regular way of operating."

An early risk for Obama is that it could take well beyond the summer for signs of renewal to emerge in the US economy. Unemployment hit 8.5 percent in March, its highest level in nearly 26 years. Nearly 5.5 million Americans have lost their jobs over the past year. Obama must walk a careful line, says Mr. Duberstein, using the bully pulpit to offer confidence without overpromising, to talk straight about the promise of his $800-billion stimulus proposals without sugar-coating the challenges ahead.

"I think he's exactly the medicine the American people are looking for," says Duberstein. "What he needs to do is to make the medicine go down without that spoonful of sugar."

Obama, though, faces growing restiveness in Congress – not the least over his proposed $3.9 trillion budget. Members from both parties are torn: They want to back Obama's economic stimulus and financial bailout proposals while appearing to counter record deficits.

He also is seeing intensifying pressure from lobbyists on issues ranging from energy to the environment to healthcare, which could threaten the consensus that helped to elect him. At some point, say former White House insiders, he'll have to make hard choices about his über agenda. As other presidents have learned in the past, he may have to pursue initiatives he thinks he can't afford to lose and let others go. "He really will have to continue to be very purposeful and focused on what he's trying to accomplish," says McClarty.

And, while presidents don't like to hear it any more than quarterbacks do, both must make peace, at times, with incremental gains.

"It is a long drive down the field," says McClarty. "He's just got to be very steadfast."

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