This article first appeared in the UConn Business magazine, Volume 1, Issue (Summer 2009)
Paul Speltz ’69, ’72 MBA has been an advisor on USA-China affairs to the White House under Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush. In 2002, President Bush appointed him U.S. Executive Director to the Asian Development Bank. He is currently Chairman and CEO of Global Strategic Associates, LLC and Senior Advisor to Kissinger Associates, Inc. He joined the School of Business Hall of Fame in 1998 and serves on the School of Business Board of Advisors.
While some might question the objectivity of a former member of the George W. Bush administration critiquing President Obama’s performance in his first 12 weeks in office, most friends and colleagues would describe me as a moderate Republican who, above all, can recognize that the current President has faced unprecedented challenges in the short time he has held his new position.
In short, I give the Obama administration generally good marks on its performance amidst these tumultuous times. What follows are my impressions of the White House’s responses across a range of sectors, some dealt with more favorably than others. Let us take a look at some of the realities that President Obama faced as he entered office, including areas which have received less coverage than others, and understand where he has led the country so far.
Inner Beltway Syndrome
As the euphoria of winning the election has subsided for Obama, the President faces the reality of demands from countless groups, organizations, and individuals who believe that they were instrumental in the party winning the Presidency.
Despite President Obama’s repeated claims that he will not pander to special interests, he nonetheless immediately began facing the realities of favors granted and the expectation that those favors will be repaid in Washington DC, a.k.a. the “Inner Beltway Syndrome.” In the days and weeks following the election, his biggest internal task will be in taking the mantle of Democratic power from the Democratic members of the House and Senate, who held it for the prior eight years. Unfortunately, he has not been successful in accomplishing this.
The attitudes of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have not been in sync with the President, as they clearly continue to try to establish and promote their own agenda on the Hill. These mixed signals and lack of coordination have led to the array of poorly planned economic bills coming to the floors. I would give the President a “B “ for his outreach to Republicans and special interest groups in his first few months, but I would give him a “D” in his ability to seize the leadership on the Hill from the very party that put him in power. This is not unusual in Washington, but President Obama must move to control the Hill quickly, or he will fail to enact the many programs that he has promised the American people.
President Obama’s ability to select a Cabinet and Sub-Cabinet actually went quickly until he began bumping into the results of excessively stringent screening standards. For example, the administration added the vetting step of analyzing the computer hard drives of many of its candidates, a laborious and time-consuming step. However, it is important to look at past administrations and recognize that, even without these extra measures, many had not filled Cabinet and other top-tier positions, including Ambassadors, until the late spring and early summer following inauguration.
Given the public’s very high expectations of Obama in light of the economic crisis, there have been unrealistic demands for speed in filling top positions. However, despite Treasury and other agencies being well on their way to filling their ranks, the administration must assume some responsibility for the added layers of scrutiny which have delayed a number of critical appointments. I rate the President between a B and a C on this effort.
Economic First Aid
The economic “solutions” we have seen from the White House have unfortunately been a series of haphazard measures which seek to place a Band-Aid on the wound as opposed to treating the underlying condition. The results have generated a great deal of volatility and “back-and-forthing” on problems facing the automobile industry, the banking sector, and now the pay and regulation of the financial sector as a whole.
Much of this can be explained by an anxious national and global public wanting the administration to do something, anything, very quickly to halt the economic free fall. However, many of the stellar scholars and economists the President has on staff maintain more of a focus on generating plans within the intellectual sanctity of academia; precious few have the extensive private sector experience to understand how such plans will play out in the harsh reality of the marketplace.
Much of the economic “planning” that has come out of the administration, while novel and sweeping and certainly worthy of praise in an academic journal, have an equal or greater potential for economic backfire as they do for turnaround.
While the economic problems we face have been caused by greed, arrogance, lack of accountability, and unrealistic hope for continued easy wealth across a number of administrations, there has been enough finger-pointing as to their root cause. The aim must now be to focus upon learning from past mistakes and applying reasonable regulations and oversight for the future, without choking the fundamental effectiveness of free market capitalism. As of today, there is hope that the US stock markets are testing the bottom. Only time will tell if this is unrealistic optimism. My belief is that we still have a long time before we see a turnaround, and we will not see significant upticks in economic indicators such as employment levels before 2010. For his very patchy performance in an admittedly tumultuous time, I give the President a “C” on the economy.
In the area of international relations, I feel President Obama has done quite well, and I give him a grade of “B”. The public must remember that effective operation on the global stage does not simply mean foisting responsibility upon the Secretary of State. The President must set the agenda with input from the National Security Council, the State Department, and key advisors in the White House. He must then ensure that his agenda is carried out, and that there is a level of concord among the players.
Despite high expectation, President Obama’s approach to the G-20 meetings was genuine, and his other engagements in Europe thereafter have been well received as an American foreign policy that represents a willingness to listen and cooperate with other nations, rather than lecture them. This is refreshing. The approaches in Asia, although a bit confusing at times, were well received, and his approaches with Russia on further denuclearization are seen by many (myself included) as steps in the correct direction. North Korea will remain a headache for President Obama for a long time to come, and there is no quick solution – certainly not the military strike solution that Mr. Bolton and a few others might advocate. Our patient cooperation with Japan and South Korea on this issue is crucial, andwe must continue to ensure that China and Russia remain as parties to these negotiations.
Regarding domestic affairs, this is not an area on which the President has had the luxury of spending a great deal of time yet, so I will refrain from proposing a grade. During these first 100 days or so, most Americans have appeared to be patient, as President Obama focuses on their most important concerns: their jobs, their lifestyles, and their heavily mortgaged homes. However, patience has its limits, and this honeymoon period will run short sooner than later. At that point, key members of the Obama team in the Departments of Health and Energy, to name a few, must begin demonstrating results to a heretofore intractable and difficult Congress. We can only wish them the best.
A Closing Note
President Obama has had his hands full with more demands in his first 100 days than any of his recent predecessors. He and his team at the Treasury must maintain focus on the economy and its global impact. In every country where I have travelled in the past few months, global financial leaders have expressed a desire for the United States to act decisively in enacting necessary financial reforms without leading the rest of the world down the path of protectionism and isolationism. We must also remain productively engaged with other key economic partners, particularly China, to ensure their understanding and cooperation as we look forward.
We will hopefully be able to accomplish this while winding down the conflict in Iraq, and adding much needed resources to Afghanistan without letting it turn into a quagmire we can little afford. This is to say nothing of the demands on the President provided by Sudan, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, emerging drug wars in Mexico, and the Global War on Terror, which will stay with us for generations to come.
These challenges, when added to the mix of domestic issues and priorities, add up to a President who will need all the luck and support we can summon for him, as his hair turns exceedingly white in the months to come.