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What Obama’s First 100 Days Have Meant for 50-Plus America

It’s not much of a measure. President Obama’s own aides call the 100-day mark a “Hallmark holiday.” In 1961, President John F. Kennedy, who bristled at the standard, famously remarked that the set of tasks he faced “will not be completed in the first 100 days; nor will it be completed in the first 1,000 days.” And scholars debate how much can be learned about a presidency in any new president’s first 100 days.

Nonetheless, since Franklin D. Roosevelt filled that period with a tidal wave of legislation and executive actions, the 100-day mark has become a guidepost for pollsters, politicos, pundits and presidents alike.

Here, through the matrix of what it means for 50-plus America, is what we know about Obama and his first 100 days in office.

Older Americans, once skeptical, have warmed to the president.

He has wide support among those 50 and over. A new Pew Research Center poll found that more people ages 50 to 64 approve of his performance as president than disapprove of it, by 60 to 28 percent; more of those over 65 approve of it than disapprove, by 55 to 30 percent.

By comparison, Obama was outpolled by John McCain on Election Day among voters 50 and over. Although AARP members told pollsters in exit interviews that they narrowly favored Obama, he was trounced by McCain 53 to 45 percent among voters 65 and over, and barely won, 50 to 49 percent, among voters 50 to 64.

Interestingly, he gets higher marks from 50-plus Americans for his handling of the economy, foreign policy and terrorism than for his health care proposals, his tax policy or his handling of the budget deficit.

Among the overall public, Obama’s personal popularity is actually growing, with 73 percent giving him a favorable rating, compared with George W. Bush’s 61 percent and Bill Clinton’s 60 percent early in their presidencies. He also gets high marks for not conducting “business as usual,” with 64 percent of those ages 50 to 64 saying he has “a new approach to politics”; 62 percent of those 65 and over agree.

His ambitious agenda succeeds or fails with the economy.

In a bruising two-year campaign, Obama pledged to reinvigorate government, bring the war in Iraq to an end, begin investing in renewable energy and reforming health care, cut taxes, balance the federal budget and restore U.S. credibility overseas.

This all hinges on rebounding from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. While unemployment continues to rise and home foreclosures continue to increase, Obama has mobilized his administration, through the Federal Reserve Bank, to stabilize the nation’s housing market and shore up the nation’s still-balky financial system with more than $1 trillion in special loans. His Treasury Department is negotiating with auto industry officials and lenders as carmakers General Motors and Chrysler teeter on the edge of bankruptcy, with their 930,000 pensioners at risk.

At this point, consumer confidence has ticked upward, and according to a newWall Street Journalpoll, public belief that America is headed in the right direction has risen from 11 percent on Election Day to 43 percent today.

Stoking confidence and boosting optimism is always the crucial first step, analysts say, in reinvigorating a nation suffering the effects of a deep recession. Getting the country to regain confidence in itself is “the most important thing he’s done in these 100 days,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, a one-time assistant to President Lyndon Johnson, toldMeet the Press.

The economic turnaround is crucial for 50-plus America.

Americans 50 and over have shouldered disproportionate losses in the current economic upheaval, as Wall Street prices fell by almost half and housing values dropped 20 percent. Of the nearly $7 trillion in Wall Street losses, for example, those over 50 lost $5 trillion.

Any economic recovery, when it comes, will have comparable disproportional benefit. That could take years. In the meantime, the unemployment rate among those over 55 has doubled to 6.2 percent in the past 15 months, and other older Americans have canceled retirement plans and are working longer if they can.

“One hundred days is an awfully short time,” said John Rother, AARP executive vice president for policy and strategy. “The true measure of comparison ought to be the track record of previous presidents, and by that measure Obama has accomplished quite a lot.”

Obama won congressional approval for a $787 billion economic stimulus bill in near-record time, even though his efforts to win bipartisan support sputtered. The Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $150 billion in tax breaks for low- and middle-income households and a $250 benefit for all Social Security recipients. The administration says it will create or save more than 3.5 million jobs over the next two years.

He has set the campaign for health reform in motion.

Obama won congressional support to expand health care for 11 million children with the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. The economic stimulus plan includes $19 billion to begin computerizing medical records and training nurses and primary care doctors in the system’s use, with a goal of saving billions in health care costs.

But that was just the start. His new budget creates a 10-year $634 billion health care “reserve fund” to expand health insurance, improve the quality of care and modernize the system as an effort to promote coverage for all Americans. He has convened a series of town hall meetings where dozens of health care stakeholders pledged to seek common ground in reducing health costs and expanding coverage. “The progress already made toward health reform is pretty significant,” Rother said.

To demonstrate the potential for computerized medical records to reduce errors and save money, the administration has gotten the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments to develop shared medical record-keeping that would transfer a file seamlessly from one agency to the other after military personnel end their active service.

Communities will be helped by rebuilding the nation’s transportation system in the name of economic stimulus.

In addition to allocating nearly $7 billion for more than 2,100 “shovel ready” highway construction projects, the stimulus act designates more than $8 billion to help develop high-speed rail corridors, including links that would connect Los Angeles to San Francisco, Minneapolis and Kansas City to Chicago, and Washington to New Orleans and Houston.

Separately, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has allocated some $3 billion to spend on delayed improvements in the nation’s supply of public housing.

He’s expanding the role of government.

After three decades of politicians’ “smaller government” rhetoric, Obama has launched an aggressive expansion of the federal government’s interests and activity. While the president has resisted calls to nationalize any banks, the federal government now owns a substantial share of two auto companies and several banks, and the administration is involved in day-to-day management of the auto industry—including the sacking of one CEO—and the banking system. With two low-level wars, a deep recession, a perceived backlog in domestic and foreign initiatives, and a solid Democratic majority in Congress, Obama has concentrated decision making at the White House and launched sweeping initiatives.

One measure of his vision is Obama’s budget proposals, which, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), would add a whopping $9.3 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. The auto industry initiative holds particular impact for 930,000 older and retired GM and Chrysler workers, whose pensions and health benefits are at stake.

“We’re seeing the beginning of serious change in the country, and it’s one of the biggest departures I’ve seen in my adult lifetime,” David Gergen, an adviser to four presidential administrations who now teaches at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, told NPR. “The pendulum is swinging.”

His pitch for bipartisanship produced a new initiative for volunteer service, but little else.

In April Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which he championed in his inaugural address to expand national community service programs, increase the number of positions from 75,000 to 250,000 and create new cadres of volunteers focused on education, clean energy, health care and veterans. This represents the greatest expansion of service opportunities since 1963, when President Kennedy called for creation of a national service corps.

The new law also seeks to encourage volunteer work among retirees and would offer them a $1,000 educational award that they could transfer to a child or grandchild.

The recovery and the fate of the Obama administration are at a tipping point that could last for a while.

The biggest threats to Obama’s agenda remain economic. While boldly boosting the budget deficit now to create jobs, reopen spigots of credit and refloat the housing market, Obama’s budget team says it wants eventually to shrink the government’s debts, which according to the CBO would double over the next decade.

The economy is also weighed down by the fact that, having indulged in a decade of go-go spending, many Americans now face the frightening realities that they owe more on their homes and cars than they are worth. Home foreclosures that first sprouted among risky borrowers holding subprime loans are now spreading to conventional borrowers who have lost their jobs. As retail sales continue to be weak, commercial real estate owners, shopping mall developers and large retailers are the next to face potential real estate setbacks.

“It’s actually been a pretty fruitful 100 days,” Tom Davis, a former GOP congressman from Virginia and Republican strategist, said to theSan Francisco Chronicle. “The gig on him is he’s trying to do too much, but from those criteria, he’s doing well and his numbers are still very, very strong. You can pick apart his policies … but we had a campaign and basically he said what he’s going to do and that’s what he’s doing.”

Jim Toedtman is the editor of theAARP Bulletin. Michael Zielenziger writes on business and the economy.

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