2009-05-08 / Columnists

Meeks' Message From Capitol Hill

Changing The World In The First 100 Days
Commentary From The Desk Of Congressman Gregory Meeks

GREGORY MEEKS GREGORY MEEKS Last Wednesday marked the 100th day of the Obama presidency. From my vantage point as chair of the Financial Service Committee's Subcommittee on International Monetary Policy and Trade, and as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, it's been an extraordinary three and a quarter months. Nothing in my eleven years in Congress comes close in terms of the degree of difficulty, complexity, or scope of problems our 44th president and the 111th Congress have had to tackle. I believe it's accurate to say that President Obama's performance has exceeded everyone's hopes and expectations. And Congress, with its larger Democratic House and Senate majorities, has been right there keeping pace as a partner in coping with multiple crises and bringing about change.

In the space of 14 weeks and two days, the President and Congress partnered to enact: the $787 billion stimulus package, the Lillie Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the State Children's Health Insurance Program, the Edward Kennedy public service bill, measures providing relief to millions of families facing foreclosure, and a budget resolution that lays the foundation for genuine health care reform, a green economy, and energy independence. The president also banned torture, closed the Guantanamo detention camp, set guidelines for ending the war in Iraq, ended the Bush restrictions on stem cell research, reached an agreement with Russia to accelerate work toward a new nuclear arms reduction treaty, took steps to improve relations with Cuba, and went on widely-acclaimed trips to Canada, Europe, Mexico, and the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

I admit to a certain bias. I campaigned nearly non-stop for the President in the general election. We are personal friends. In fact, when he was a U.S. Senator, we used to chat frequently and often sat next to each other at meetings of the Congressional Black Caucus.

But, it's not just me. Public opinion polls show that a sizeable majority of the American people are equally optimistic about President Obama. In a recent New York Times/CBS poll, 68 percent of the public approves of his job performance. Similar numbers feel that things will improve over the next years. Nearly half now think the country is heading in the right direction ? that's way up from the 19 percent who felt that way the day before the Inauguration.

More than 70 percent give the president his highest rating on improving America's image abroad. Fifty three percent support establishing diplomatic relations with Iran. Two thirds approve of improving relations with Cuba.

President Obama may have kindled an even warmer reaction around the world. After the last eight years it's remarkable that in just three months an American president could generate so much good will, such high expectations, and such eagerness to cooperate with us.

While it's clear that Mr. Obama is something special, he is proving that America itself is still something special. Like our system or not, there's a widespread acknowledgement around the world that American leadership is indispensable in solving global problems and regional crises. No other country is able to play an equivalent role. What's different is that America now has a president who is smart enough and confident enough to make smart power ? diplomatically engaging friend and foe, emphasizing multilateral consultation and cooperation, flexibility and sensitivity, mutual respect and mutual interests, and resorting to military action only as the last resort ? the guiding principle of US foreign policy.

I had an opportunity recently to work with the president in exercising smart power. The occasion was the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, capital of Trinidad and Tobago. I was there in my capacity as a member of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chair of the Subcommittee on International Monetary Policy and Trade, but worked in tandem with the Administration.

Summit organizers had asked me to keynote a hemispheric private sector forum which preceded the summit. Afterwards, I held in-depth conversations with government officials, legislators, and private sector leaders from the Caribbean, as well as North, South and Central America. I was able to renew friendships that I have developed during a decade of work on trade and development issues, including discrimination against African descendant populations in a number of Latin American countries. I exchanged views with 25 of the 34 heads of state or government who attended the summit.

These leaders from across the political spectrum were uniform in expressing admiration for the new tone and direction President Obama is setting and their desire to work more closely with the United States on a wide range of issues.

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