The Velocity of Hope

President Obama’s first 100 days in office are likely to be judged in different ways by different people, but there’s one measure by which he’s been objectively successful — the speed at which he has advanced his liberal agenda.

The young president has certainly had his share of stumbles along the way, including: the bungled nominations of Judd Gregg and Bill Richardson to be Commerce Secretary; the tax problems of Tim Geithner and Tom Daschle (the latter costing Obama his original point man on health care); and the AIG bonus controversy.

But these events were all short-lived and in the meantime, Obama has kept his mind focused on his larger goal of using government to fundamentally remake the American economy.

Obama came into office at a moment of economic peril with a substantial Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress, a friendly media, and the momentum from a successful presidential campaign. He has proceeded to enact his proposals at such a ferocious pace, that Republicans and conservative activists have had difficulty concentrating their message because of the sheer volume of initiatives that warrant opposing.

On February 17, less than a month after taking the oath of office, Obama was able to sign his $787 billion economic stimulus package. The following week, while Republicans were still pointing out all of the pork-barrel spending included in the economic plan, Obama had moved on to making the case for his $3.55 trillion budget and his vision to transform energy, education, and health care. Earlier this month the House and Senate essentially approved his budget blueprint, and are expected to vote on a revised version today.

Previously stalled legislation that had long been the subject of years contentious debate, such as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and S-CHIP, quickly became law without much fanfare once Obama took office.

Each day brings another headline of a new Obama intervention — a $275 billion housing plan, a renewed bank bailout, a decision to sack the chief executive of a private company, and, just this Monday, a pledge to have the federal government target how much of the nation’s gross domestic product is devoted to scientific research and development spending.

While most new presidents are given leeway to implement at least some of their campaign proposals, Obama has been able to get more items passed, sooner, than most. By comparison, George W. Bush didn’t sign his first tax cut until June 2001 and Ronald Reagan wasn’t able to sign his signature tax cut plan until August 1981. In 1993, it took Al Gore’s tie-breaking vote in the Senate, also in August, to pass Bill Clinton’s economic plan and budget.

There should be little doubt that Obama’s actions will catch up with him, eventually. It’s easy to remain popular when you’re handing out goodies if people don’t think they’ll have to pay for them. But his spending is projected to more than double our debt to $17.3 trillion over the next decade, or a staggering 82.4 percent of our economy. The money required to close that gap cannot come out of thin air — not without triggering a massive inflation.

No political prognosticator or economist knows enough to say with any degree of accuracy when that day of reckoning will come. Americans may reach a realization in a matter of months, or it could take several years. The essential question is how much Obama can get done in the intermediate time period.

The good news for conservatives is that Obama hasn’t yet succeeded in fundamentally changing America. His economic measures have set bad precedents, but most are at least theoretically reversible once the current crisis is over should a more conservative government take over at some point in the future.

However, if Obama succeeds in passing health care legislation later this year, America will be destined to resemble Europe, and there will be no turning back, no matter how fierce the public backlash over the inevitable explosion in deficits and implementation of rationing.

For all of his successes, Reagan couldn’t make a dent in the main pillars of the welfare state and even consented to a payroll tax hike to subsidize a failing Social Security system. When Republicans swept into Congress in 1994, during the short period in which they actually tried to rein in government, they were able to pass modest welfare reform, but unable to touch Medicare.

Obama envisions himself as a transformational liberal leader, whose programs, like FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, live on long after he’s gone. He’s well on his way to achieving his goal, unless Republicans figure out some way to slow him down.