You are here

Obama First 100 Days: Inherited Challenges and the Legacy Tripod

Dr S. Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • May 01, 2009

    April 29 marked the first 100 days of the presidency of Barack Obama. Urgency, pragmatism and engagement have marked his method of tackling the enormous challenges bequeathed to him by the previous administration. Complimenting this three-pronged approach in dealing with inherited challenges, the Obama administration has also initiated major policy moves with ambitious agendas encompassing a triad of issues - nuclear disarmament, energy independence and climate change. The policy dynamism associated with these efforts is solely guided by the vision and initiative of President Obama and hence not encumbered by association with the previous administration.

    Inherited Challenges: The Three-Pronged Approach


    The twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a fragile economy beset by regulatory problems that was the cause of the global economic downturn, a dysfunctional domestic healthcare system, were among the difficult challenges inherited by his administration. To deal with these myriad issues, Obama hit the ground running. The decision to close down Guantanamo Bay, seen as hurting America’s moral standing in the world, was taken within 24 hours of the swearing-in ceremony. The $787 billion stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), to pull the economy out of the doldrums, was signed within a month of taking over. This was an indication of the urgency the administration brought to bear in dealing with one of the worst financial crisis to have hit America since the Great Depression.

    Pragmatism vs. Campaign Rhetoric

    These and other decisions have not only been geared towards fulfilling his campaign promises but have been cognizant of the limitations of power and the hard ground realities. For instance, in the initial days of his campaign, Obama had vowed to bring back American troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking over, i.e., by June 2010. This position was later modified to have referred to only combat troops and to include the caveat that such a move will depend on the assessment of his military commanders. The deadline was again extended to August 31, 2010 in February. With the latest spike in violence sparked by attacks by Sunni insurgents against Shiite targets in Baghdad and Mosul, reports indicate that the administration is likely to take an even more flexible stance on the issue. Obama was also pragmatic enough not to rile his Turkish hosts during a visit to that country in early April by referring to the ‘genocide’ of Armenians in 1918, an issue which was an important campaign pledge.

    Robust Engagement

    Such ‘streaks of pragmatism’ have been coupled with a policy of engagement in dealings with other foreign policy ‘problem areas’. On Iran, for instance, the president’s landmark March 20, 2009 direct appeal to the Iranian people held out the prospects of a closer engagement “grounded in mutual respect.” The administration’s policy of robust engagement with the new Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, as signified by the appointment of George Mitchell as the new Middle East envoy and the visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the region in early March, is in contrast with the previous administrations rather belated efforts to try and nudge both sides towards a peace deal. While the ‘troop surge’ in Afghanistan seeks to replicate the positive effects of a similar strategy executed in Iraq, recognition of the dangers posed by a rising Taliban within an unstable, porous and nuclear Pakistan runs through the president’s AfPak strategy unveiled on March 27 and being coordinated by the veteran diplomatic trouble shooter Richard Holbrooke.

    No Major Foreign Policy ‘Surprises’

    The administration did not have to deal with many foreign policy ‘surprises’ during the period, save for the ‘failed’ North Korean missile/satellite launch on April 5. While the administration’s response to that act of brinkmanship by Pyongyang was criticized as being ‘incoherent’ by a Washington Post editorial, the missile launch coincided with a major speech made by Obama in the Czech capital Prague, in which he called for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

    The Legacy ‘Triad’: Disarmament, Energy Independence and Climate Change

    In his Prague speech, Obama termed the existence of nuclear weapons as the “most dangerous legacy of the Cold War” and argued against the “fatalism” that the spread of nuclear weapons and technology cannot be stopped. Acknowledging that the United States as the only nuclear power to have used the nuclear weapon had “a moral responsibility to act,” he reiterated “America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Towards this end, he pledged to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in American national security strategy, pursue a new strategic arms reduction treaty, achieve a global ban on nuclear testing and “aggressively pursue US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty,” seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials, and strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, among other measures. He strongly criticised the North Korean launch earlier in the day as a violation of prior commitments. On the Iranian nuclear issue, Obama reiterated that his administration will “seek engagement with Iran based on mutual interests and mutual respect” while being cognizant of the “real threat” posed by its nuclear and ballistic missile activity. He also announced “a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years” and proposed a Global Summit on Nuclear Security, to be held in Washington before 2010.

    The sweeping agenda on nuclear disarmament and proliferation issues mirrors the administration’s policies on energy independence and climate change. Obama has called American dependence on foreign oil one of the “most serious threats” it faces and a pernicious habit which “bankrolls dictators, pays for nuclear proliferation, and funds both sides of our struggle against terrorism.” He directed federal regulators in late January to set strict automobile emission and fuel efficiency standards, to be effective from 2011. In a major speech at the White House on January 27, Obama affirmed that the over 40 per cent increase in fuel efficiency as a result of the new automobile standards would save America over 2 million barrels of oil every day. Among other measures, over a quarter of America’s energy is sought to be secured from renewable sources by 2025.

    To tackle climate change which Obama had termed an “epochal man-made threat to the planet,” the administration seeks to implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade programme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 per cent by 2050. It also envisions creating five million new ‘green’ jobs over the next decade by investing the $150 billion earned through the sale of carbon credits. The economic stimulus plan signed in February contained significant provisions amounting to nearly $40 billion relating to measures designed to further energy efficiency and research. The administration’s first budget, ‘A New Era of Responsibility: Renewing America’s Promise’ provides nearly $34 billion to the Department of Energy to conduct research into low-carbon technologies, reliable, energy efficient electricity delivery systems, and to eliminate radioactive waste and nuclear materials. The budget also scaled back funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository pending the devising of “a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal,” thus fulfilling a campaign strategy as well.

    To carry forward the administration’s ‘green’ agenda, a high-profile cast of scientists and environmentalists – dubbed the ‘green dream team’ by analysts – has been assembled, including Nobel Laureate Steven Chu as the Energy Secretary; Carol Browner, head of the newly-created White House Office of Energy and Climate Change (OECC), constituted on the lines of the British Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC); Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Harvard physicist and environmentalist John Holdren, chief of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP); climatologist Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Todd Stern, a former Clinton administration official involved in Kyoto Protocol negotiations as the State Department envoy on climate change; and renewable energy expert and electric cars proponent Jon Wellinghof as the chief of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

    The Legacy Triad: An Assessment

    The challenges in realizing the substance of Obama’s nuclear, climate and energy agenda seem enormous. Scepticism has been expressed for instance on the viability and desirability of achieving his ‘green’ agenda, especially as environmental concerns no longer occupy the public imagination due to the pressures of the economic downturn. The cap-and-trade programme, scheduled to start operating from 2012, is being viewed as an additional burden on the tax payers, at least in the short-term. The efficacy of the programme, as opposed to a carbon tax, is also being questioned, given the problems encountered by European countries in implementing similar schemes. Dilemmas associated with nuclear power, environmental concerns generated by drilling for more oil and lack of progress in realizing the dreams of alternative fuels like bio-fuels, have also been cited as limiting factors towards a rapid ‘green’ future.

    While it can be argued that these initiatives on which Obama’s domestic and foreign policy legacy hinges are guided solely by his vision and statesmanship, it is hard to escape the fact they are also bounded by historical baggage. Past American policies on these issues have constricted and limited the scope of Obama’s vision. Nuclear disarmament dreams continue to seem as distant as ever, despite his laudatory pledges. The manner in which America goes about devaluing the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy will be keenly watched.

    The degree of sensitivity the Obama administration will show towards the genuine concerns of developing countries while negotiating the contours of a new climate treaty will be thoroughly scrutinized. While indications are that these concerns are appreciated, it remains to be seen what kind of help is forthcoming to put in place mechanisms to achieve the twin goals of sustainable growth and a safe environment.