Nation & World

Obama’s first 100 days

long read

President Barack Obama, J.D. ’91, took the oath of office on a blistering cold afternoon in January with ambitious plans to bolster a faltering economy and alter the course of two wars being fought on the other side of the world. He offered a vision for overhauling health care and improving education and re-energizing the spirit of service in America. One hundred days later, he has a preliminary record worth examining.

Historians point to the extraordinary first months of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency as the period that began the contemporary custom of taking a new president’s measure on their 100th day in office. They might also point out that there is nothing magical about the 100th day, that the decisions for which presidents are remembered are no more likely to happen in their first few months than they are on their 212th day in office.

But the 100-day mark does provide a useful yardstick for assessing a new administration. By the time April is ending, a president has fully transitioned from candidate to chief executive; appointees to key posts are in place; and priorities have been communicated by concrete actions: diplomatic overtures, legislative battles, the delivery of a federal budget.

On the occasion of President Obama’s 100th day in office, we asked several Harvard faculty members to consider the new administration’s early actions in their areas of expertise and offer some guidance about how the president could make a difference on issues ranging from the threat of nuclear terrorism to energy policy in the days to come.

Edward Glaeser
Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics, director, Taubman Center for State and Local Government, director, Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston

Fiscal policy

Anti-recessionary policies borrow from the future to ease present pain. The key is to make sure that fighting this recession doesn’t do too much long-term harm. It is appropriate to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to get credit flowing again, but not every bank needs to be saved. The Treasury Department is too afraid of bankruptcy and receivership, which means that too much taxpayer money is going to help bank owners and creditors.

The stimulus package had three core elements: tax cuts, aid to states, and direct federal spending.

Reducing taxes, especially the payroll tax on poorer Americans, is a relatively straightforward and sensible way to encourage more economic activity. Aid to states is a reasonable response to balanced budget rules that would otherwise cause states to massively cut spending during a recession.

The most worrisome aspect of the stimulus package is the vast increase in direct public spending. Public projects are better judged on their own merits, not as parts of a use it-or-lose-it recovery plan. The most worrisome developments are the creeping abandonment of some key pillars of sound policy: free trade, private ownership, and rule of law. The “Buy American” clause in the stimulus package was an embarrassing moment of neoprotectionism. Public management of General Motors is misguided. The punitive 90 percent bonus tax was egregious expropriation. The United States is going to leave this recession with a massive public debt, and it shouldn’t also lose the basic ingredients of economic success.

Kathleen McCartney
Gerald S. Lesser Professorship in Early Childhood Development, dean, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Education reform

No Child Left Behind succeeded in focusing the nation’s attention on meeting the needs of all learners, including poor children, children of color, and children with special needs. Unfortunately, the program was underfunded, the tests were not good enough, and the law resulted in unintended consequences, for example, a narrowing of the curriculum. Going forward with the reauthorization, we need to get the incentives right for schools serving at-risk children, enhance accountability systems, address the learning needs of special populations, and — most importantly — support teacher quality efforts. Voluntary national standards would help many states meet the goal of educating all students to a high academic level. Many children begin school already far behind their peers. Experimental research has demonstrated that early education works. President Obama should establish an Early Learning Council, as he has pledged, to build an early childhood education policy from the patchwork quilt of programs that exist today.

The knowledge base in education is woefully inadequate. The annual budget for the Institute for Education Sciences last year was $594 million, a small fraction of the $28 billion allocated for the National Institutes of Health. It is little wonder that medical breakthroughs have outpaced advances in education. We need rigorous research to guide decision making. The influx of dollars through the stimulus package is a start.

Daniel P. Schrag
Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology and professor of environmental science and engineering, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences


The Obama administration took office with a commitment to create a national energy policy to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, stabilize energy prices, and fight climate change. Accomplishing all these objectives would be Herculean during the best of times, so we might expect some backsliding during a severe recession. And yet Obama shows every sign of making good on his promises. First, he selected a team of highly qualified advisers. Second, following the EPA’s finding that anthropogenic climate change does in fact harm human health, Obama appears ready for a fight in Congress over a cap-and-trade bill that would place a price on CO2.

So what is missing? One hundred and fifty billion dollars over 10 years — Obama’s commitment to green energy — sounds like a lot of money, but rebuilding the nation’s energy systems will require much, much more. Even $40 billion for energy in the stimulus bill pales in comparison with the tasks ahead. To accomplish these goals, the country needs massive and longterm investment in new energy infrastructure that the private sector has ignored for more than 30 years. The government will not pay for all of it, but must leverage federal dollars to guide private investment with carrots and sticks. I suspect Obama understands this. The challenge is whether he can summon the political will to stay the ambitious course he has set.

Joseph Newhouse
John D. MacArthur Professor of Health Policy and Management, Harvard Kennedy School

Health care

President Obama has pointed out many serious problems with American health care: the millions of un- and underinsured, substandard quality, and unsustainable cost growth. Of these three problems, the easiest to address is the un- and underinsured. Quality is more difficult, but trends are encouraging, and the president’s initiatives in health information technology and comparative effectiveness should help.

The most difficult problem is cost growth. Obama has correctly pointed out that the historical rate of growth is unsustainable. Here in Massachusetts we have come close to universal coverage, only to see that progress threatened by spiraling costs that we cannot afford. Unfortunately, we do not know how to lower those rates except for a limited period without curtailing beneficial services — some of which have yet to be developed. Hence, we risk losing more in benefits than what we save.

Yes, American health care is wasteful. Administrative costs are excessive. Too much care at the end of life is pointless. Some regions spend more than others with little or nothing to show for it. Obama has correctly said we should eliminate as much of this waste as possible. But we don’t know how to carry out a surgical strike on waste. Crude measures such as spending caps could reduce benefits more than they save. And because there is only so much waste to get rid of, even a surgical strike only changes the growth rate while the waste is shed — a free snack if you will.

Many Americans believe that they have a right to any medical service that they and their physician agree could benefit them and that public or private insurance should pay for most of the cost. Lowering the steady-state growth rate of medical costs is incompatible with that view, at least if new beneficial treatments continue to be developed at historical rates. Currently, an elected official who says, “We can’t keep having it all,” risks defeat. Obama’s leadership task is to make it safe to acknowledge this truth in public.

Evelynn Hammonds
dean of Harvard College, Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies

Public service

President Barack Obama has made an impressive start in his first 100 days in office. On April 22, he issued a call for national service to our nation’s young people. He signed into law the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, tripling the size of the AmeriCorps program, and called   to “volunteer time to improve their communities.” He urged Americans to restore parks, tutor children, and help communities struck by natural disasters. The president has also called for a day of national service to mark the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

The president’s call to national service is impressive and laudable. But we should all ask, Does it go far enough? For my generation, the call to service represented by the Peace Corps, Vista, and other government programs was inspiring, but at the same time it was daunting for the poor and working class kids I grew up with in the American South. People in our communities were fighting desperately for the right to have a decent education and they expected us to keep our eyes on that prize so that we could use our knowledge to lift our communities out of poverty. As we fulfilled the goal of obtaining undergraduate and advanced degrees,many of us asked if it was enough to make our way into the powerful institutions that had so much influence on American life. Some of us felt that it was enough, and found many ways to give back to our communities. Others felt it wasn’t enough as they watched some communities remain mired in poverty despite the best efforts of more enlightened government and individual programs.

This generation of students has the great opportunity to re-think ideas about public national service. They must ask harder questions than the generations that preceded them; they must be more creative, innovative, and courageous as they answer the president’s call to service with new ideas about how to increase, sustain, and energize the desires of so many Americans to use their public service to the end of re-redressing the fundamental problems of our society. Given the commitment that Harvard students have already made to public service, I fully expect to see them take the lead in pushing us all to the next level. I hope that President Obama will continue to find new ways to inspire them and direct their creative energies.

Douglas A. Melton
Harvard College Professor, Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences, investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute

Research funding

Some 50 years ago the United States established a partnership between the federal government and research universities that made possible undreamed-of advances in our understanding of basic biological processes and the treatment of diseases. Today, however, the system of funding research through the National Institutes of Health reflects its age, and needs a dramatic overhaul.

It is, as President Obama promised during his campaign, a time for change, and nowhere is that change more needed than in the National Institutes of Health’s grant review and funding mechanism. As things stand now, the great majority of research funds go to long-established scientists who are doing good, yeoman-like work, but whose great, field-changing work may be behind them.

The most significant thing President Obama could do to ensure that America maintains its leadership position in the biomedical field is to cut by a decade — from 43 to 33 — the age at which promising young scientists receive their initial, career-establishing RO1 grant from the National Institutes of Health. To do that we need to strengthen the NIH grant peer-review mechanism to ensure that it rewards innovation and risk taking, rather than placing the vast majority of its bets on sure things that, while they are likely to succeed, will only provide incremental advances in understanding and treatment of disease.

Ernest May
Charles Warren Professor of American History, Harvard Kennedy School

Foreign policy

In one of his last presidential speeches, Bill Clinton said, “People say I’m a pretty good talker, but I still don’t think I’ve persuaded the American people … to care a lot about foreign policy, about our relationship to the rest of the world.”

A major task for President Obama is to find the words that eluded President Clinton. From the 1940s to the 1990s everyone understood the overriding challenge. It was to avoid a Third World War. Now that threat has subsided. We cope with particular problems, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes not. But we no longer have a shared sense of what matters most and what therefore should shape our responses to these particular problems.

In the same speech, President Clinton suggested that the overriding challenge now is “to build a global economy with a more human face.” That is probably right — neither on one hand the prosperous but homogenized world promised by globalization nor, on the other, a world where people savage one another to protect their own identities and interests.

The words needed now will not be like “Containment” or “Deterrence.” They will probably resemble more “the Open Door” or “the Good Neighbor” or perhaps, more sweepingly, something like FDR’s“Four Freedoms.” But so long as we lack the right words, we will continue to improvise and to risk incoherence.

William Clark
Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development, Harvard Kennedy School

The environment

The Obama administration’s admirable early focus on the connections between energy use and climate change needs to be expanded to encompass the broader agenda of sustainable development: devising paths of development that bring prosperity and poverty alleviation while conserving the life support systems of the planet. Just as the president’s energy initiatives are seeking ways to meet society’s needs for heat and power while producing more good jobs, more security, and a gentler footprint on the planet, so we need comparable revolutions in how we meet our needs for food, housing, and health. In agriculture, this means preserving our best land for crops, not subdivisions; reducing wasteful use of biocides, fertilizers, and water; and getting much more serious about health and safety all along the food chain. In housing and urban development, it means building and rebuilding our cities as though we intended people to live healthy and rewarding lives in them: job producing, pedestrian, and bicycle friendly, welcoming of greenery, and much more focused on reducing and closing the loop on waste. And in health, we need to realize that as important as improving care surely is, even more so is shaping our energy, food, and urban systems in ways more conducive to healthy living in the first place. The agenda of sustainable development is a complex and connected agenda that cannot be advanced by individual sectors — or countries — acting in isolation. It is nonetheless an agenda that individual people grapple with every day of their everyday lives. Surely we can expect no less engagement from our leaders.

Jennifer Leaning
professor of the practice of global health, Department of Global Health and Population, Harvard School of Public Health, co-director, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, director, Inter-University Initiative on Humanitarian Studies and Field Practice

Human rights

Human rights are global and the United States commands a global reach. Our stance on key human rights issues affects the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and our practice serves to enhance or degrade these crucial norms. The new Obama administration has a great opportunity to return the United States to its respected leadership role in support of important principles enshrined in international human rights law.

Recent threats to U.S. security have led us to restrict the application of treasured civil and political rights (habeas corpus) and transgress our signed international commitments to refrain from torture. These restrictions and transgressions must be explicitly renounced, and our affirmation of the basic tenets of the U.S. Constitution as well as our obligations under the Convention against Torture must be fully restored.

The United States has avoided defining the nation’s support for domestic social safety nets in human rights terms. Yet this country faces the mounting negative consequences of failing to provide health care for all. The Obama administration must address this failure.

The rights of minorities are still at risk in this country. Efforts must be strengthened to remove entrenched pockets of exclusion, fear, and despair within our population. U.S. migration and detention policy, particularly as it relates to juveniles, must be rendered more humane and more just.

The status of women in the United States has improved markedly but continued vigilance is needed to ensure equal rights of women in employment, education, health, and family law. On the international scene, the Obama administration must raise to highest priority the efforts needed to promote issues of women’s survival, reproductive choice, workplace safety, and education.

We remain an outlier nation by refusing to enter several key treaties in international human rights and international humanitarian law. Progress in signing and/or ratifying these treaties would send a transcendent signal that the United States has agreed to become a full participant in the normative framework of the international community.

Graham Allison
Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School, director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Nuclear terrorism

As President Obama summons all his imagination and energy to address the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, a reminder of something even worse may seem unhelpful. But the brute fact is that if Osama bin Laden succeeds in exploding one nuclear bomb devastating the heart of one of our great cities, historians will note that “meltdown” in financial or economic affairs was just a metaphor.

Could the global nuclear order today be as fragile as the American-led global financial order was a year ago — when Wall Street “masters of the universe” assured us that all was well?

In fact, the architecture that has for four decades held back powerful pressures for the proliferation of nuclear weapons is shaky. As the recent report of the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism concluded, our margin of safety against WMD terrorism is “shrinking, not growing,” and a terrorist WMD attack is more likely than notsomewhere in the world in the next five years.

President Obama rightly identifies nuclear terrorism as “a threat above all others.” The good news is that this is the ultimate preventable catastrophe. In the campaign President Obama articulated an ambitious agenda of actions that, if taken, would reduce the likelihood of a nuclear 9/11 to nearly zero. None of these will happen easily or automatically.

Even in the midst of current exigencies, President Obama must preserve a slice of mindshare to drive this agenda.

David S. Scharfstein
Edmund Cogswell Converse Professor of Finance and Banking, Harvard Business School

Economic recovery

The ongoing financial crisis has made it obvious that we need to overhaul financial regulation. The fundamental problem is by now well known. Financial institutions — banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, and others — have incentives to take excessive risk. Devising effective regulation to control such behavior will not be easy because the incentives to take excessive risk derive from many sources, the measurement of risk is difficult, and regulations intended to control risk can hamper useful financial innovation.

Nevertheless, there is remarkable consensus among finance experts on the broad outline of regulatory reform including the following:

Systemically significant financial institutions — those that expose the financial system to greater risk — should be subject to tougher regulation.

More sophisticated measurement of systemic risk must be collected from a wide variety of financial institutions, not just banks.

One regulatory authority should be in charge of measuring and controlling systemic risk.

When there are failures of systemically significant institutions, regulators need enhanced authority to deal with them.

The initial steps taken by the Obama administration are encouraging. Treasury has announced its support for regulatory reform along these lines and has already proposed legislation to enhance regulatory authority over failing institutions. However, comprehensive regulatory reform will take time, particularly if there is to be international coordination, as there should be.

As the financial crisis abates and the economy recovers, it will be tempting to shift focus to other important matters. But the Obama administration should continue to pursue reform of financial regulation to promote economic growth and financial stability despite likely challenges from financial