First 100 Days: Current and former public officials

President Barack Obama
REUTERS/Jason Reed
President Barack Obama

Former Gov. Arne Carlson: Obama gets credit for rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure

Dismayed by extremism in the right wing of the Republican Party during last fall’s presidential election, former Gov. Arne Carlson made headlines when he endorsed Barack Obama instead of fellow Republican John McCain.

Arne Carlson
Arne Carlson

Carlson, now semi-retired and spending winters in Florida, says he didn’t switch parties. “I’m still Arne Carlson and I haven’t lost my ability to think independently,” said Carlson, who served as governor from 1991 to 1999. These days, he serves on three company boards of directors, including Ameriprise Financial’s RiverSource Funds, where he once was board chairman.
 
He thinks President Obama ought to be getting more credit for his efforts to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, which in Carlson’s estimation hasn’t received adequate attention since the New Deal.

“Our modern infrastructure is about 60 to 70 years old — our railroad tracks, our electrical grids, all of our environmental oversight,” Carlson said in a telephone interview from Punta Gorda, Fla. “What Obama is doing is refurbishing and investing in a whole host of new ventures — energy, global warming, environmental. I think that’s an extraordinary step forward. With or without a recession, it’s precisely what this nation should be doing.

“The potential is enormous: the potential to go green, the profitability of going green. Obama is opening up a whole series of opportunities that will have an incredible business impact. We haven’t seen this since the launching of space.”

Minnesota has much to gain from the ripple effects in his view. “Just think what would happen in Minnesota, if, one, we had two senators, and, two, we plugged into high-speed rail. … Look at the assets to Minnesota. We’ve got [Rep.] Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, champing at the bit for high-speed rail and only recently does the governor [Tim Pawlenty] decide to support it. He should be out championing it — he should be doing everything he can to get the Senate seat filled so we can have both oars rowing that boat in the Senate. … Think of the opportunity this has for Minnesotans to be able to quickly access Chicago.”

What also impresses Carlson is how foreign policy has become a strong suit for Obama, something he wouldn’t have predicted two years ago. “I would say Obama has dramatically changed the image of America and the expectations of America. … The U.S. has a whole new face, and I think the world as a whole is very excited. They’re excited by the fact that we have a president willing to acknowledge that the United States has made mistakes in the past; that it’s going to represent its very core values that made it a very great democracy, and he’s going to restore dignity and pride.”

But as a Republican who values fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets, Carlson is troubled by one development in Obama’s presidency. “I’m very concerned about the volume of money going out at the pace that it’s going out. I think it’s essential to restore confidence in the market — the question is the whole issue of risk, be it debt or be it purchasing, if you will, a stake in America’s private sector. We’ve already had a lot of episodes where those grants or gifts or investments have come back to bite us. … But it’s very hard during a transition period to be perfectly careful, and so there will be stumbles, no question. … Three years from now, we’ll have books out on where this money was wasted and where that money was wasted.”

Even so, Carlson says, “I do think there’s a greater sense of economic optimism today than 30 or 40 days ago.”

—Casey Selix

Ralph Remington, Minneapolis City Council member: It’s going to take time to untangle the mess

Ralph Remington
Ralph Remington

Ralph Remington, a Minneapolis city council member, was among the first elected officials in the country to embrace President Obama. After endorsing him in 2007, Remington spent days in Iowa working on candidate Obama’s campaign. Later, he was an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

“I have no disappointment with the job he’s been doing. With what’s on his plate, I think he’s been doing a great job. I’d be more comfortable if folks would give him a year, not just 100 days, before they start making judgments. Things have been screwed up for years and years. It’s going to take time to untangle the mess. I think most people understand that.

“Obviously, he’s surrounded by turmoil. There’s turmoil economically and even the collective psychology of the country is in turmoil. We don’t know who we are anymore, and he’s going to be a big part of defining who we become.

“He’s taken the lead on economic policies and green technology. We have to totally re-imagine how we use energy and he’s in the lead on that. And then there’s foreign policy. He’s out there talking to people we wouldn’t even talk to. I don’t know how we got into that idea of not talking to people we don’t agree with. But you even see that at the local level in politics: I won’t go to a certain meeting because those people don’t support me.”

Remington sees Obama as a product of both the civil rights movement and the “hip-hop generation.”

What does that mean?

“He combines hip-hop and civil rights energies in how we interact with each other. The hip-hop generation doesn’t look at things in a xenophobic way. It’s a sample culture, a taste of this, a taste of that, and out of this we will create a new paradigm. It’s the doctrine of creolization. He doesn’t say he has all the answers.

“He has surrounded himself with really smart people. We haven’t seen a team this smart in a long time. The Bush team was experienced, but how smart were they? I’m still inspired, energized, proud. I believe he’s a transformative figure on the whole world.”

—Doug Grow

Former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer: Obama’s daring economic fix fits campaign message he preached

George Latimer
George Latimer

The president has made great strides in setting a course to change the world’s opinion of the United States, in the view of George Latimer, former St. Paul mayor and veteran observer of public affairs, housing and education issues.

“There’s no question that he has the star quality, the presence, to get people in Europe and elsewhere listening to him, and engaging in meaningful talks. It’s foolish to ignore nations because we don’t like them or they’re part of the ‘evil empire.’ He’s made it clear we’re not going to stand pat and glare at nations we don’t agree with. It’s like the old Winston Churchill line: ‘It’s better to jaw, jaw, jaw than to war, war war.’ “

On the domestic side, Latimer said it should be no surprise that Obama chose the high-risk path of starting all the necessary economic mending initiatives at once, rather than peeling an onion and starting one fix at a time. “For him to have the daring to run for president and be elected, it’s not surprising he chose the more daring route,” he said.

One  worry: Although it’s fine for an executive to lay out many simultaneous courses, legislative bodies work with much deliberation, so it might be too much to expect to see all the reforms passed smoothly through Congress.

A nag about the first 100 days: “This may be unusual for a Democrat, but I’m troubled by the corporation bashing. I know it’s extremely popular. Everyone’s angry. But the market system has worked well most of the time in our country. I’m worried that the automobile company move is dangerous. I’d like to see him move more like a fox than a lion. Throwing an auto company president out on the street is really something. I’m not sure he should have that much of a hand in running a company. The politics of wanting to do something could be getting us into a very expensive non-solution.”

Latimer likes the Obama vision. “Confidence and inspiring the country is a critical part of governing. FDR had that ability; Reagan had it. Obama’s got it. I heard him give a speech a couple weeks ago that gave an abiding vision, with a five- to 10-year integration of the economic health and education policies. That’s what it’s going to take. If we don’t reach the kids, you can forget about a recovery, and he gets that.”

A crucial part of the success so far has been Obama’s demeanor, Latimer said. “He’s reintroduced the idea that the presidency is a full-time job. That matters. This man is serious. If you agree with all he says or not, you see that he’s working.

“And there’s a real sense of intellectual probity and solidness. We feel good knowing that while thoughtful paths don’t always lead to success, thoughtless ones are less likely to succeed. We can all understand his thought process when he makes a presentation, and that’s a great gift to the people of a democracy.

—Joe Kimball

St. Paul School Board Member Tom Conlon: Lone area GOP officeholder has concerns about all the spending

Tom Conlon
Tom Conlon

As a Republican member of the St. Paul School Board — the only Republican elected office-holder on any level in either St. Paul or Minneapolis — Tom Conlon said he likes President Obama’s communication skills and thinks he’s a likable person.

“But I’m very concerned about the big deficits and the massive spending that’s going to have to be paid by future generations,” he said. Rapid inflation could be the result of the Obama plan to spend [the nation’s way] out of the economic mess — “bringing us back to the Jimmy Carter era of massive inflation,” he said.

On the bailouts: “Where do you stop? Who gets it, who doesn’t?”

Obama has communicated a clear vision — that the economy is in trouble and we’ve got to fix it — but Conlon disagrees on the execution of the plan. “We have to pay now, or pay later. Maybe we’d be better off biting the bullet now, letting some institutions fail so that we’d have a quicker recovery.”

Internationally, Conlon said he’s disappointed in aspects of Obama’s approach. “We don’t need to apologize to the world about who we are and what our values are,” he said.

These first few months are when the president should make the ambitious moves, Conlon said. “The time for bold initiatives is during the honeymoon time, but we won’t know for some time if the economic plans will work. Racking up the big deficit may help in the short term but come back to haunt us over the long run, he said.

“And as a Republican, I do wish he’d be more centrist in all areas, particularly in any upcoming court appointments that could have a big impact on social issues,” he said.

—Joe Kimball

President Obama: The first 100 days
· An overview from community leaders and activists
· Minnesota Congressional delegation
· Current and former public officials
· Special issues: labor, science, gay rights, the arts

Related: Europe’s love affair with Obama by Michael Goldfarb

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