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Herbert A. Opalek: Quo Vadis, Mr. President?

Herb Opalek

According to apocryphal legend, "Quo vadis" is the question Peter asks Jesus when he encounters the risen Lord on a road leading away from Rome.

In this Latin term, he is asking Jesus, "Where are you going." Jesus answers that he is going to Rome to be crucified again. This answer is what gives Peter the courage to return to Rome to face his own martyrdom.

Where are we going is a good question to ask two months into the Obama presidency.

What have we seen in our new president to give us hope for an economic recovery and a chance for the good old United States to retain its pre-eminent place among the nations?

Are the hopes that many Americans had for this president going to be realized or are we, again, standing on the precipice of doom and gloom?

Some would say that two months is too short a time to evaluate the positive and negative tones of a presidency.

In other words, is the honeymoon over? The "honeymoon" concept for a newly elected president is defined as the short period after a president is inaugurated when the opposition party refrains from attack, Congress is inclined to support some of the president's initiatives and the president receives high public approval ratings.

Within a month or two, partisan attacks generally resume and the honeymoon period ends.

President John F. Kennedy extended the concept by calling on the then-Soviet Union to extend him a honeymoon period as a goodwill gesture.

One of the shortest honeymoon periods on record was that of Gerald Ford whose pardon of his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, sparked public outrage and led to a 30-point drop in popularity after his first month in office.

Professor Casey Dominguez of the University of San Diego has studied presidents from Kennedy to Bill Clinton and finds that on bills where the president has taken a position, there is a higher likelihood of passage in the first 100 days than in later periods in his inaugural year.

The average success rate in the first 100 days is 88 percent, compared to 78 percent and 74 percent in the second and third 100 days.

Presidents are also more successful in their inaugural years than in other years (87 percent vs. 75 percent). However, the effect of the first 100 days is present only in times of divided government.

Under unified government, their success doesn't really vary between inaugural years and other years.

So where, on this political journey, are we going with President Obama?

An objective viewer would have to report that the results are quite mixed. This week's issue of The Economist is quite correct in stating that "the President has had a bumpy ride in his first two months."

There can be no doubt that Obama is the Democratic Party's Great Communicator; definitely more articulate and charismatic than Ronald Reagan.

In this post-modern age he is supertelegenic and appealing to the boomers and busters who are so fed up with political incompetence. But is that enough?

Most of Obama's experience has been in the not-for-profit sector and in local politics.

He has no hands-on business experience in the private sector that fuels our economy.

This lack accounts for the failed nomination of two secretaries of commerce, one secretary of health and one head of the National Intelligence Agency. There are more than 20 vacant positions unfilled in the Treasury Department that, in this economic decline, should have been a first priority.

For someone who ran against the old-style politics and decried pork-barrel spending (those who know me, appreciate how much I am against that pork), there were 8,750 earmarks to be found in the $410 billion spending bill that he signed.

So far it seems that all his plans and actions are intended to spend enough money to delay the inevitable economic collapse. He must be more creatively proactive and do much more than that.

These past two months have seen gains and failures and the whole world is watching this president to see if he can succeed. This country has united around him hoping that he can stem the recession and halt the economic depression.

After his G20 summit and this week's NATO meetings, he must shine. He must take action to get Europe and our other allies to go after al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

After all, if they are allowed to remain secure all of Europe is open to their attacks.

Israel, America's only dependable democratically elected government in the Mideast, is now to be governed by a conservative-centrist government under the leadership of American-trained Binyamin Netanyahu.

How will Obama interact with this major ally in stemming the nuclear threat from Iran?

We must pray that President Obama regroups from the bumps of these first two months and leads us toward economic stability and world peace.

I am reminded of what former British foreign minister Ernest Bevin (1881-1951) said, "If you let that sort of thing go on, your bread and butter will be cut from right under your feet."

So, "Where are you going?" is a most valid and appropriate question to ask our new president.

Herbert A. Opalek is CEO of the Merced County Rescue Mission. He writes a column every other Saturday.