100 Days: Has Obama Really Brought Change? - Part II

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A diverse group of policy experts discuss how President Obama has succeeded or failed in his first three months on the job. Abderrahim Foukara, of Al Jazeera International; author Reihan Salam, of the New America Institute; Glen Ford, of the weekly online publication Black Agenda Report, and economist Julianne Malveaux, share their views on the Obama administration.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we hear from a poetic voice on this, the one hundredth day of the Obama administration. Poet and professor Elizabeth Alexander delivered her original work, "Pray a Song For the Day" at Mr. Obama's inauguration. She talks with us about that work and the place of poetry in public life as we wrap up National Poetry Month series. That's in just a few minutes.

TELL ME MORE, Host:

How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save The American Dream."

Glen Ford is the executive editor of the weekly online publication Black Agenda Report. Julianne Malveaux is an economist, a political commentator and the president of Bennett College, an historically black college for women. And Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera International. I welcome you all, thank you all so much for joining us.

JULIANNE MALVEAUX: Good to be here.

GLEN FORD: Thanks for the invitation.

MARTIN: So much ground to cover and I hate to resort to grades but since we have you with us, Dr. Malveaux, and you are an educator, I'm going to start with you. How would you grade President Obama's performance - meeting expectations, failing to meet your expectations, exceeding expectations? And how about the expectations of the country while you're at it?

MALVEAUX: I think he's far exceeded expectations. I give him an A, maybe even an A-plus. I mean, there are some areas where I'm not perfectly satisfied but the overall performance has been so stunning, in terms of the way that he has hit the ground running, addressed the economy. The economy was much worse in January when he took office than it was in November when he was elected. And yet he has been able to address that very, very forcefully. I have been - I can't say anything except that I've been very, very delighted.

The budget has been passed by both Houses. Now, of course, they have to compromise. The stimulus package is going to make a big difference in our country. And the areas that affect me most, the Pell grant is up by $650, it's amazing, it's important, it makes a difference to our students. He has tackled the student loan industry, might get more money if we can look at ways to get the middleman out of student loans. And tackle the credit issue, which by anybody's count would not have been on the top 10 list but so very important to so many Americans.

MARTIN: Wait, hold on, are you grading him on class participation or effort or on result?

MALVEAUX: All of the above, I think.

MARTIN: Okay, Glen Ford let's hear from you.

FORD: We decided that we'd adopt a methodology that split the issue areas into 17 categories and then we would allocate between four and nine points per category and take away points based upon his performance. And we found that we could give him no more than 24 out of 100 points. And I'd like to...

MARTIN: And what's the - what's the metric there for evaluation?

FORD: Well, the metric, if for example we're talking about the area of urban policy, we know, that the - that Barack Obama in an unprecedented move appointed a White House office for urban policy. And Bruce Dixon, our managing editor who conducted this exercise, gave President Obama four out of five points for establishing this office on urban policy. But then President Obama appointed to head that office Adolfo Carrion, a Democratic party hack, the president of the Borough of the Bronx, who is totally enmeshed with developers and Bruce found it necessary to take away four of those five points.

MARTIN: But is your evaluation mechanism how well he is performing in your view in addressing issues of particular concern to African-Americans or to urban Americans or to poor Americans? What's the standard?

FORD: Our standard is what is most important to black Americans and that also includes urban Americans and poor Americans. And of course our destiny is entwined with the rest of the country.

MARTIN: Okay, but what's your overall - what's the overall grade, if you don't mind...

FORD: Well, we're only able to give him 24 points out of 100. You know, this entire exercise of giving people report cards and setting cut off points I think obscures the actual performance and behavior in each of these areas. And that's why we chose to break it down into 17 categories.

MARTIN: Okay.

FORD: I think we get a much better picture that way.

MARTIN: Point taken.

FORD: Rather than measure the ambience of public approval, which is the most subjective way to look at this subject.

MARTIN: Point taken. Reihan Salam, can we hear from you?

SALAM: Yeah, this is a tough question to answer. I mean I'm inclined to say incomplete but I think that's an unfair answer to your listeners.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SALAM: So I guess I would give him a solid B-plus. I think that in terms of meeting expectations, I think that it would have been impossible for him to meet expectations because lots of different people had different expectations. For example, some expected him to reconcile with Republicans, to govern in a bipartisan fashion. But that's hard to do when the number of Republicans is shrinking and when there is still a lot of anger about some policies that people resent or don't understand or, you know, aren't willing to accept. And I think that, you know, on the other hand he has done a very good job of trying to have a kind of broad-minded tone.

He has had a lot of success on the international front. He, you know, has certainly been very bipartisan with regard to Afghanistan policy. Overall he comes across as a very kind of sober pragmatist. But I think that we've just seen the opening bid in a series of really transformative moves. And so, you know, in terms of those first opening steps, he has done them in a politically skillful way. But I do think, like a lot of other conservatives, that a lot of these transformative policies are going to have unintended consequences. But again, that remains to be seen. So, it's hard to judge.

MARTIN: Okay, Abderrahim Foukara let's hear from you. I was asking whether the - just couldn't resist the grading technique and I understand Glen Ford's reservations about it. But in the interest of time I was asking whether you think this president has met expectations, yours and those of the people you cover, exceeded expectations or failed to meet those expectations.

FOUKARA: He has certainly moved - made a number of very bold moves as far as the Middle East is concerned. Top of the list is obviously his overture to the Iranians. It seems to me that that's probably going to be the pivot of his foreign policy with regard to the Middle East. It was a courageous move but the final ultimate test for the success of that move with regard to the Iranians is going to be when he actually starts meeting face to face with the Israelis. Israelis have a different set of priorities. Barack Obama wants Iran to be one of the top priorities of his administration.

And I'm sorry, he also wants that the Israeli-Palestinian issue to be one of the top priorities. The Israelis have a different set of priorities. They do not necessarily see Israel-Palestine as their top priority. They want action, tough action against the Iranians. Now, it's going to be the ultimate test in him trying to convince Benjamin Netanyahu when he visits Washington, the Israeli prime minister, over the next few weeks, that the fact that the United States wants dialogue with the Iranians does not necessarily mean that they want to undermine the safety and security of Israel.

MARTIN: We have so much to talk about. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with Reihan Salam, Julianne Malveaux, Abderrahim Foukara, and Glen Ford. And we're talking about the first 100 days of the Obama administration. Julianne Malveaux - you are kind of at the crossroads of so many of the issues that are important to Americans right now. As an economist you're tracking the way the recession is proceeding.

And as an educator you're looking at young people and, I think, thinking and talking with them all the time about what - how they're viewing the country, their own life chances, their sort of opportunities to succeed. How - I'm wondering how long you think this president has before the actual quality of life, the actual sort of improvement - improvement in their circumstances becomes more important than the promise?

MALVEAUX: Well, I think the nation's report card on President Obama will be the 2010 election. The Democrats have a edge in both the House and in the Senate and there's been a lot of rhetoric. I think that as we get closer to the election people are going to say, you know, has he really made a difference in my life? So, he's got at most a year and a half but it may be even less than that. When I look at that our students, for example, I met with a junior class earlier this week and they're getting ready to be seniors and looking at their sister friends who aren't finding jobs at the pace that they want, aren't getting the financial aid offers that they'd like to get for graduate school. And they're worried.

And one of them said to me, well, President Obama should do something about this and that this was so amorphous and, you know, I was, like, okay, sister, let's get realistic here. But the fact is that the unemployment rate at 8.5 percent is 25 percent for black people. And so what that means is you've got lots of people who have high expectations and who are going to be a little impatient.

MARTIN: Reihan, you just wrote a piece for the Daily Beast called "How Obama Could Blow It."

SALAM: Yeah.

MARTIN: Hard to see how he could blow it with 81 percent of people personally like him. But you say he could.

SALAM: I think he absolutely could. I think that President Bush was similarly very, very popular in what a lot of Americans perceived as a moment of crisis. Americans tend to rally behind their president, as we all know, in a moment of crisis. And Barack Obama has a personality that a lot of people find very attractive right now as an antidote to Bush.

But, you know, at the same time, Bush was seen as an antidote to Clinton in an earlier era, and we forget this. But I think that it's all very contingent on circumstance. And I think that if the economy goes south in a dramatic way - and by the way, that is not necessarily anyone's fault. I think that, you know, there's just an extent to which this is true for Bush and for Obama.

Governing a country as big and complex as ours in a world as dangerous and unstable as ours is just an incredibly hard job. So it could be that, for example, Obama's policies would work over a 10-year time horizon, but they might not work over a two or three-year time horizon. And that's what matters in election.

MARTIN: One of the issues that has polarized the country most, one of the decisions that this president has made that has polarized the country the most is not, ironically, something having to do with the economy, is not something to do with the issues that Americans list as their top priority, it's this question of - it's this decision to release the memos describing the Bush administration's decision to authorize the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, which most people consider to be torture.

And this has sparked a furious discussion both internationally and domestically. Many of the people who served in the Bush administration are furious about this decision. And they'll say that - and this - it has polarized the country. The polls show that many Americans are very divided over whether this was a good thing and what should happen now. And I want to just play a short clip of President Obama talking about the memos at CIA headquarters last week. And here it is.

BARACK OBAMA: I have put an end to the interrogation techniques described in those OLC memos. And I want to be very clear and very blunt. I've done so for a simple reason, because I believe that our nation is stronger and more secure when we deploy the full measure of both our power and the power of our values, including the rule of law.

MARTIN: Glen Ford, you're otherwise a strong critic of the president on domestic policy issues. What is your take on this decision?

FORD: Yes, we have that one listed under investigating Bush-era crimes. And Obama could've gotten a possible five points in that category. We were able to allocate him no points in that category because the sum net effect is that he has affirmed a bipartisan elite consensus that government officials are above the law and that these Bush-era crimes will not be punished. So we weren't able to give him any points on that.

MARTIN: So it doesn't go far enough in your view. It's - transparency is one thing, accountability is another in your view.

FORD: And we must remember that those memos were released as a part of a process that was begun by the ACLU and its suit under the Freedom of Information Act. It wasn't an initiative by the Obama administration. The Obama administration's role here is to close the door. It seems that the door has been closed on prosecution of Bush administration officials.

MARTIN: Well, he said that the attorney general would go where the facts lead him. He did close the door, at least for now, it seems, on a 9/11-style commission, independent commission. But he did say that the attorney general could go where the facts lead. I do take your point. Reihan, can I just hear from you?

SALAM: Sure. I think this is a very difficult, very thorny issue. And I think that, like a lot of conservatives, I am not sure it was very wise to release this information. I do think that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques was - went out of hand. I think that it was abused. And I think that these practices should absolutely not have been used. I agree with John McCain on that. I agree with a lot of Republicans on that front.

At the same time, it's not clear to me that it was appropriate to declassify this as quickly as we did, you know, given that we actually still are involved in this conflict. And I think that the Obama administration has tried to thread the needle very carefully. But I think that, you know, leaving it in the hands of the Justice Department, I understand exactly what he's thinking. It's admirable. He wants to leave it in the hands of, you know, legal practitioners who can weigh the issues carefully. But I worry that this actually might seize control of the administration's agenda, might actually prove also problematic in terms of foreign policy. So I really don't know how this is going to play out.

What I do know is that, you know, moving to shut down these enhanced interrogation techniques is vitally important. And I think that a President McCain would've done the same thing. I just don't know about how he's gone about it. To some extent I agree with Glen Ford that, I mean, taking a clearer stand one way or the other might actually have been a better move, if only because it would give us more certainty.

MARTIN: Abderrahim Foukara, how is this playing overseas? And what is your take on this decision?

FOUKARA: Well, two things. The first one is it's hard for me to tell whether, in making that decision, Barack Obama had miscalculated the fact that he would end up getting fire from both sides, the left and the right.

Number two, regardless of what is being said by the left and the right, you have people like Dick Cheney, for example, who's saying that the memos, publishing the memos undermines the national security of the United States. The Obama camp obviously defend that decision.

The way it is reverberating in the part of the world that I'm from, where the issue of human rights is a constantly salient theme, is that this is a big decision. This is a bold decision. This is a very brave decision on the part of Barack Obama.

Here's the thing. You end up hearing expressions like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, concepts that are traditionally associated with third-world politics more than with the politics of a country like the United States. But it's, again, hard for me to tell whether people will see that in the Middle East, whether they will see it as demeaning for the United States or whether they will see it as Barack Obama making a brave decision. And basically telling Americans and the rest of the world, look, accountability is part of the American system. And it doesn't matter how high you are in the American political echelon, if you've done something wrong, you will be held accountable.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Abderrahim Foukara, Glen Ford, Reihan Salam and Julianne Malveaux, analysts all, about President Obama's first 100 days in office. We need to take a short break, but when we come back we will speak more with our roundtable. Please stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, as National Poetry Month winds to a close, we visit with poet and professor Elizabeth Alexander who presented her original work, "Praise Song for the Day," at President Obama's inauguration. We'll talk with her about that experience in just a few minutes.

ME MORE: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream," Glen Ford, executive editor of the weekly online publication Black Agenda Report, Julianne Malveaux, economist, political commentator and the president of Bennett College, an historically black college for women and Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera International.

When we last left our last segment, we were talking about the impact of the president's decision to release the memos on torture. I want to go back to the domestic policy issues and also sort of look forward to see what are the issues that the president is likely to confront in the next 100 days and going forward.

Julianne Malveaux, we've spent a lot of time talking about the economy. Clearly it's agenda item number one for the country. The president faces a number of important decisions in the next couple of weeks about the auto industry, for example. The auto industry leaders have to come back with these revised plans. And the president's made clear that bankruptcy is not, you know, off the table. Looking forward, what are the moves that you feel are most important for the president to make to continue to address this faltering economy?

MALVEAUX: Banking regulation is something that should be on the table. One of the things that I've been a bit disturbed about with the Obama administration is the presence of Larry Summers as an economic adviser. Mr. Summers is responsible, during the Clinton administration, for removing some of the Glass-Steagall firewalls that existed post-Depression to basically keep the banking industry safer.

But I do think we need to look back at banking regulation. There's not a lot of confidence right now in, you know, Wall Street and in banking. And so this is something that's important. He's already begun to address the issue of credit cards. That's very important. We know how many Americans are in debt, hitting on bankruptcy, credit card debt at an all-time high. And the companies behaving in very, very capricious and arbitrary ways, changing interest rates just because they want to. And so that's another issue to deal with.

The biggest issue, though, is employment, Michel. This is the issue that most Americans are really grappling with, the quality of the workforce. Will there be jobs? Young people want to know will there be jobs for them? You have an increasing number of people who are freelancing, who are part time and want full-time work. And so anything that can be done with employment generation is going to be very important.

The Labor Department under Mr. Bush took a completely hands-off approach to the whole issue of employment generation. Reports were released, but we did very little to create jobs and not only the jobs that are created by stimulus, but also Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has a big job in terms of looking at just the vitality of our labor market. We've automated so many things. And these were jobs that people could have had. And so we need to begin to look at that because so many people really are counting on the federal government to take a leadership role.

MARTIN: Okay, we have to leave it there. I'm sorry, Julianne, we have to share the rest of our last couple minutes with the rest of our distinguished panel. Glen Ford, I'm assuming you'd cosign a number of things that Dr. Malveaux had to say. Your priorities for the next 100 days and beyond?

FORD: Well, we gave the Wall Street bailout a category of its own and allocated six points to his handling of that. And we could not give him any of those six points because what he's actually done is effectively linked the national economic survival to the fate of the investment banking class and that has deep repercussions for the future.

On the other hand, in health care reform, which is also an economic issue, we gave him four points for at least affirming that health care is a human right and that's an important basis to move forward from. We had to take a single point away from him because of his suppression of single payer health care advocates.

MARTIN: Okay. So is there - very briefly. I'm sorry, Glen, very briefly, we're pushing - I apologize for that. But so there are things he can do to pull up his grade as far as you're concerned?

FORD: Oh yes.

MARTIN: Okay.

FORD: There's plenty of time left.

MARTIN: All right. Reihan, I'm sorry. I have to give you - I have only two minutes to divide between you and Abderrahim. So, you also point out that the president's very lucky in his opposition, but...

SALAM: Yeah, I think that's right. I actually think that Glen makes an excellent point on Wall Street. I think what worries me is that the bailout that we've seen comprehensively of Wall Street, of the auto industry, et cetera, will actually delay some of the pain and economic dislocation. And the process actually make the economy come slower than it would otherwise. But, you know, that's hard to say.

MARTIN: All right, and Abderrahim, a final thought from you - and was asking you, what are the foreign policy challenges that perhaps we have not focused on in the first 100 days that yet remain on the table and might come back to be important and urgent for the president in the coming days?

FOUKARA: One of the interesting things to me about Barack Obama is the extent to which he has leveled with the American people and with the rest of the world about Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, he revealed for the first time the full scale of the problem, not just in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan. I think Pakistan will be a major problem for him over the next 100 days and the next 100 days after that. He is obviously trying to push the Pakistani government to move against the Taliban.

Politically the Pakistani government has traditionally been weak. The makers and shakers are the intelligence and the army. Parts of the intelligence and the army - and the U.S. administration is on the record as saying this - have been actually lending support to the Taliban. So it's going to be very - a big challenge for him to actually push the Pakistanis all together to move against the Taliban. Their instinct is actually to support the Taliban.

And given that they have a problem with India, for example, the Pakistani government will need the support of the Pakistani people to deal with India. So it's going to be very hard for the Barack Obama administration to push the Pakistani government to do something that is actually against its political instincts.

MARTIN: To be continued. I hope you all will come back in our next 100 days to talk more about these important issues. Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera International. Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Institute. He's also the co-author of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream." Abderrahim is with me in the Washington studio. Reihan was with us on the phone from Washington. Glen Ford is the executive editor of the weekly online publication Black Agenda Report. He was kind enough to join us from member station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. And Julianne Malveaux is an economist, political analyst and president of Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. She joined us from her office. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

FORD: Good to be here.

FOUKARA: Thank you, Michel.

MALVEAUX: Thank you.

SALAM: Thank you.

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