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What Fresh Hell Awaits?

Five new problems for Obama’s second 100 days.

The presidency isn’t supposed to be easy--but the sheer tonnage of catastrophe that has been heaped on Barack Obama in his first 100 days is astounding. As Michael Crowley put it, “Two wars, economic collapse, and now a possible global pandemic. When do the locusts arrive?” Never, hopefully. But that doesn’t mean that Obama’s second 100 days will be any easier. Below, five TNR staffers--some cheekily, some not--speculate on what fresh hell awaits Obama as spring stretches into summer.

Michael Crowley--In an interview with “60 Minutes” last month, Obama called Iraq “the least of my problems.” And, indeed, his first 100 days have been blessed by a relative calm there. But that may be changing. Yesterday’s gruesome double car bombing, killing at least 41 people, was just the latest in a recent series of deadly attacks. Visiting Baghdad this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed the latest violence as “a signal that the rejectionists fear that Iraq is going in the right direction”--a phrase alarmingly reminiscent of Donald Rumsfeld’s misguided talk of “dead-enders.” In fact, the recent wave of suicide attacks suggest that the Iraqi security forces may not yet be prepared to protect the country without substantial American help. And they are a reminder that peace in Iraq, such as it is, is tenuous indeed. Mammoth disputes have yet to be resolved, such as the distribution of oil revenue and control of oil-rich Kirkuk--questions over which many Iraqis are more than willing to shed blood.

Obama has pledged to have all combat troops out of Iraq by the end of August 2010, and the Iraqi government has asked America to leave the country by then. But if the country should again slide towards anarchy, that plan might well change. Iraq could plead with Obama to stay, confronting him with a grueling choice. Although Obama pledged repeatedly as a candidate to “end the war,” he did so at a time when Iraq seemed like a lost cause. Now that the past year or so has demonstrated that Iraq can be stable and secure, accepting a plunge back into chaos is a different proposition. (Recent experience has also undermined Obama’s past argument that U.S. troops were a root cause of instability in the country.) However, if Obama is determined to prevent Afghanistan from collapsing, he’ll need tens of thousands of troops relocated from Iraq. Given the size of the military, troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan are close to a zero-sum game.

Faced with this quandary--one of his own making, to be sure--George W. Bush concluded that stabilizing Iraq, with its natural resources and its strategic location, was a higher priority than stabilizing Afghanistan. Until recently it looked as though Obama could enjoy the inheritance of stability in Iraq and create it in Afghanistan. But in the months to come he may have to make the terrible choice anew.


Noam Scheiber--On the economic front, the most obvious second-hundred days minefield is those stress tests. The administration is planning to release the results in some form next week. Under the best-case scenario, the tests will tell us what we thought we already knew: Citigroup and Bank of America are in serious trouble and will need more capital; the other big commercial banks will be able to muddle through. But it’s frighteningly easy to imagine this ending badly. On the one hand, the results could look a little too rosy, in which case investors may lose confidence in the entire exercise. On the other hand, the results could come in more pessimistic than we expect. In both cases, the upshot could be a run on bank stocks, which is why the whole thing is such a tightrope act.

And, if we make it through that intact, there’s one more subplot that has the potential to blow a hole in our banking system: commercial real estate. Banks (and, for that matter, insurance companies, some of which have similar investment portfolios) are sitting on hundreds of billions of dollars in commercial real estate loans and securities, whose downward trajectory looks similar to residential real estate, except a year or two behind. It’s not hard to imagine a full-on commercial real estate collapse leaving craters in banks we think of as semi-healthy. Nor is it hard to imagine this dealing a death-blow to the two big zombies. The bailouts may just be getting started.


Michelle Cottle--If you thought Obama’s plague-ridden first 100 days had a biblical feel, brace yourself: We’re headed straight into what could reasonably be called The Acts of God Season.

And I don’t mean that in a good way.

Pick your natural disaster--tropical storm, hurricane, tornado, wildfire. Like clockwork, they all come bearing down on this great nation as the weather warms. Few regions are safe. In the southern plains’ Tornado Alley, the peak season runs from May through early June, while June and July are prime twister time for the Midwest and northern plains. Along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, hurricane season starts in June and gets progressively uglier through September. Out west, wildfires rage in July and August. Then, of course, there are the derivative dangers: Because thunder storms are more common in summer, so are lightning strikes. And although, historically, this particular phenomenon has not occurred in sufficient numbers to require mobilization of FEMA or the National Guard, at the rate things are going …

Certainly, Obama cannot be rationally held responsible for such elemental disasters. But make no mistake: Every time a trailer park in Florida experiences a strong wind, a primed-for-catastrophe chattering class is going to parse the POTUS’s every word and deed for signs that this will be (all together now!) “his Katrina moment.” Making matters worse, the media are flat-out obsessed with bad weather. As far as most networks are concerned, having one’s star correspondents stand knee deep in tidal surge buffeted by driving rain and category-three winds ranks up there on the interest meter with tales of missing kids, shark attacks, and politicians banging hookers.

So while it may be the hoariest of truisms that you can’t control the weather, Obama sure as hell better start gearing up to manage it.


Brad Plumer--Another possible catastrophe for the second 100 days? Darkness. Sustained, terror-inducing darkness. In recent years, cyberspies from China and Russia have reportedly penetrated the U.S. power grid, leaving behind software that could be used to create targeted blackouts or possibly tamper with U.S. nuclear power plants, should the hackers find themselves in the mood for chaos. (Intelligence officials have stressed that it's unclear what the hackers' motives are, exactly, or whether they're even government-backed.) Stirred by the news, members of Congress have been falling over themselves in recent weeks to introduce bills to beef up grid security and fend off potential cyberattackers.

Granted, it's unlikely that China would feel any desire to disrupt the U.S. economy in the midst of a recession, but accidents can happen: In 2008, security experts told National Journal that an outage in Florida affecting three million people may have been caused by a hacker with China's People's Liberation Army who was supposed to be mapping the power grid and inadvertently hit the wrong switch. Whoops.


Jason Zengerle--Republicans are putting on a smiley face and claiming they’re actually happy to see Arlen Specter leave their party, but, while this is mostly spin, there is a germ of truth to the claim. After all, Specter is a notorious pain in the ass. ("There are two kinds of senators,” a former Republican aide once told National Review. “Republicans who don't like Specter and Democrats who don't like Specter.") And, now that Specter’s a Democrat, he becomes Obama’s pain in the ass.

Specter can make Obama’s life difficult over the next 100 days (and beyond) merely by being himself. Over his 28 years in the Senate, he’s developed a reputation as a politician who’ll vote your way--for a price. He once told Trent Lott he’d support an appropriations bill only if Lott would attend two fundraisers for him. Earlier this year, he voted for Obama’s stimulus plan, but only after he’d gotten a 39 percent increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health. In other words, Obama will have to spend the next 100 days working as hard for Specter’s vote as he would have if Specter were still a Republican.

Except, now that Specter’s a Democrat and Obama has pledged to support him in the 2010 Pennsylvania Democratic primary, Obama won’t just be working to win over Specter. He's going to have to spend some of his political capital to win over liberals, who'll have a big say in that Democratic primary and might not want to vote for a guy who opposes the Employee Free Choice Act and the public plan component of any health care legislation.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Specter could make Obama’s life easier and start voting more like a Democrat--now that he actually is one. But he hasn’t given any indication that he will. During his party-switch negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (who last year wrote that Specter only crosses party lines “when we don’t need him”), Specter claims that the subject of policy stances never came up. If it had, Specter explained, it would have led to a “long, perhaps unpleasant, conversation.” It’s one thing for Obama to have those conversations with recalcitrant Republicans. But now he’ll be having them with a member of his own party.

By Michelle Cottle, Michael Crowley, Bradford Plumer, Noam Scheiber, and Jason Zengerle