Page last updated at 18:27 GMT, Monday, 2 March 2009

Obama diary: Days 31-40

Barack Obama was elected on a message of change. Now he is in office, change is expected both in foreign and domestic policy. Here the BBC's team in Washington tracks developments in the first 100 days of the Obama presidency.


0930 EST Right to bare arms?

Rajini Vaidyanathan: The White House website has published the first official photograph of the First Lady. Michelle Obama is seen wearing a black, sleeveless dress by designer Michael Kors.

First Lady Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama's sleeveless dress has caused much discussion

It is White House tradition for such a photo to be taken, but what some here in the US are saying is less usual is Michelle Obama's decision to show her bare arms in the picture. Here is one such blog talking about the current obsession with the First Lady's physique.

One newspaper even ran a survey asking whether Michelle Obama had the "right to bare arms". The majority of respondents voted for the "who cares, it's her decision" option, but despite the findings of that particular online poll, the blogs, TV shows and magazines haven't stopped their discussions on the matter.

One article I read even suggested what types of exercises people could do to emulate the toned upper body look.

The level, and type of interest in the First Lady might seem staggering to many, but she is already emerging as a political celebrity in her own right.

She even featured on the cover of the latest issue of celebrity magazine People, following on from her recent Vogue appearance.


1710 EST 3D foreign policy

Kim Ghattas

Kim Ghattas: Obama may have been talking to soldiers at Camp Lejeune but he spoke quite a bit about diplomacy. The message was: increase diplomacy to relieve the burden on the military. It ties in with what we've been hearing from Hillary Clinton about the importance of using all the "tools" of foreign policy: diplomacy, defence and development. I'm calling it 3D foreign policy.

Another buzz-word is "comprehensive". From Iran, to Afghanistan and the Middle East, the Obama administration wants to connect the dots. It makes sense, but it's ambitious. The biggest "dot" is Iran, and how Washington manages its policy towards Tehran could also determine progress in Iraq, the Arab world and even Afghanistan.

But one of the more interesting sentences in Obama's address was one that he apparently added after his speech had already been emailed to the media. As he talked about the end of the war in Iraq, he added: "This does not lessen our commitment. We are going to be enhancing that commitment to bring about a better day in that region."

Those who thought or hoped that America's involvement in the region was coming to end will have been disappointed.

1654 EST Act of conscience?

Max Deveson

Max Deveson: While most of the media's attention has been focused on President Obama's Iraq plan, an official in his health team has initiated a process that could lead to the lifting of a Bush era regulation which allowed health professionals to refuse to provide services or information to which they had moral objections.

The rule was designed to protect health workers who opposed abortions from being forced to carry them out - but some health workers also invoked the rule when refusing to issue advice on contraception, family planning, and vaccines.

The Obama administration says it does not want to force pro-life health workers into providing abortions, but it also does "not want to impose new limitations on services... like family planning and contraception that would actually help prevent the need for an abortion in the first place."

1613 EST Obama and deadlines

Kim Ghattas

Kim Ghattas: Obama's announcement of a troop drawdown from Iraq has been welcomed cautiously by all sides - by Republicans who are eager that security gains from the last year not be jeopardised, and by Democrats who had hoped for a fuller, faster withdrawal.

But this is the beginning of the end and the end is 2011. That's the date that Iraq and the US had already agreed on (as part of last year's Status of Forces Agreement) for the full withdrawal of American troops, so this isn't exactly a breakthrough - the deadline had been set by the Bush administration.

But the new president has pinned down August 2010 as the end of combat operations.

There are no details about the rate and speed at which troops will withdraw and a reference to possible 'tactical adjustments' to the plan makes clear Obama's giving his commanders a lot of flexibility. This article is a good assessment of why the commanders want this flexibility.

1430 EST The end of the war?

The BBC's North America Editor Justin Webb was in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to hear President Obama outline his plan to withdraw US troops from Iraq.


1742 EST War dead

Kim Ghattas

Kim Ghattas: Robert Gates has announced that news organisations will be allowed to photograph the homecoming of American war dead. This overturns a ban put in place in 1991 by President George H W Bush It will be up to each family to decide whether to allow news organisations to take pictures of the flag-draped caskets returning from combat zones. Mr Gates said the fallen troops had to be honoured as much as possible but that the privacy concerns of the families had to be met.

Some support groups for military families have already reacted saying the decision showed disregard for privacy during a solemn moment. Critics of the ban had accused US governments of trying to hide the human cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Images of coffins returning from Vietnam were a graphic reminder of the mounting casualties and turned public opinion against the war.

The White House has said that President Obama supports Mr Gates' decision.

1130 EST Budget unveiled

Kevin Connolly

Kevin Connolly: In normal years, the first budget of a new presidency provides a first glimpse of an administration's priorities and the first time voters are confronted with the staggering numbers needed to describe the American economy.

But in the depths of this recession, American tax payers already know they'll be providing a $700bn bail out fund for the financial sector and a $787bn stimulus package on top of normal public spending.

Mr Obama's first budget predicts a deficit of $1.75tn - in real terms the highest level it's been since the Second World War. And it also contains one more huge provision for the future, a reserve fund of more than $600bn to pay for health care reform (although the details on what sort of reform is planned are still to come).

To pay for some of the spending there are to be tax increases on wealthier Americans, but some economists think there will have to be further increases in the future. Mr Obama spoke of the hard choices that lie ahead for America and the budget document itself says the new administration inherited a legacy of misplaced priorities from its predecessors.


1659 EST Syrian rapprochement?

Kim Ghattas

Kim Ghattas: Syria's ambassador to Washington Imad Mustapha will meet senior State department official Jeffrey Feltman on Thursday.

It's probably been a year since Mustapha has met with senior US officials, at least publicly. Relations between Washington and Damascus tensed up considerably after the Iraq invasion of 2003 and there's been no US ambassador in Damascus since 2005, when Syria was suspected of involvement in the assassination of Lebanon's former premier, Rafiq Hariri (Damascus denies any involvement).

The meeting in Washington is another sign that the Obama administration is trying to reach out to see if it finds "unclenched fists". A state department spokesperson said it was an opportunity to discuss issues of concern, such as Syria's "interference in Lebanon, support for terrorist groups and acquisition of nuclear and non-conventional weaponry".

For Syria, it's a small step towards vindication. Damascus has been trying to get Washington at the table for some time. It's not a full-fledged dialogue yet and it may not develop as the Syrians want, but in Damascus there are already claims of victory and praise for Syria's steadfastness under American pressure.

1629 EST Iraq withdrawal announcement imminent

Adam Brookes

Adam Brookes: We now expect the President to make an announcement regarding the pace and scope of troop withdrawals from Iraq on Friday, when he's due to visit the big military base at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

The buzz in Washington is that he will announce the planned withdrawal of combat brigades from Iraq in 19 months, conditions permitting. His campaign platform was 16 months, but a three month slippage will not generate any political friction.

But will he confirm the plan to withdraw from the cities this summer? And will he give any details of the force to remain in Iraq after the combat brigades have left?

His campaign platform allowed for a force capable of training the Iraqi forces, counterterrorism operations, and "support" - which could mean a lot of different things. It's likely to be tens of thousands strong, and will remain in Iraq for a long time.

1224 EST Third time lucky?

Max Deveson

Max Deveson: Deja vu in Washington, as President Obama unveils a new Commerce Secretary - the third time that he has done so.

Previous appointee Bill Richardson dropped out to fight corruption allegations, while his replacement - Senator Judd Gregg - withdrew citing political differences.

One imagines that this time, the Obama team has thoroughly checked out its nominee's ethical record (and whether he's paid his taxes). And given that - unlike Mr Gregg - he's a Democrat, one would expect him to be politically in agreement with the administration.

So will this nomination go through more smoothly than the last two?


2319 EST Elegant, ringing appeal

Kevin Connolly

Kevin Connolly: The President's keynote address to both houses of Congress was an elegantly written narrative of how America worked its way into its current state of crisis, a clearly-argued prospectus for how he thinks it can work its way back out, and a ringing appeal to the traditional American values of hard work and innovation.

2150 EST Obama gets away with it

The BBC's North America Editor Justin Webb notes that Obama's slight fluff at the beginning of his speech to Congress would have been pounced on if it had been committed by his predecessor.

UPDATE: Justin Webb also blogs about Mr Obama's healthcare pledge and his comments on terrorism.

2004 EST Twisted into a bind

Kim Ghattas

Kim Ghattas: The announcement late on Monday evening of Dennis Ross's appointment as "Special Advisor on the Gulf and Southwest Asia" made for an interesting morning briefing from state department spokesperson Robert Wood. Ross is expected to handle the Obama administration's Iran policy. So Wood faced a barrage of questions by reporters over some seven minutes - that's a long time when you're standing at the podium.

Why wasn't the word Iran used in the title? Because Ross will be advising on long-term strategic issues across the region. Why was the statement released so late in the evening? We're not trying to hide anything. What countries are included in the list? We'll get back to you. Does the list include Iran, would he meet with Iranians...

Sometimes journalists read too much into the details, but this seemed to indicate either a surprising lack of preparedness for the briefing or a lack of clarity about Ross's actual role. You can read the full briefing here.

1640 EST Big numbers

Kevin Connolly

Kevin Connolly: If you are still struggling to get your head around the colossal numbers which litter the American economic landscape then further help is at hand.

A conservative economic think-tank offers the following perspective on the figure of $13 trillion (9 trillion) which is where the national debt will be once you add to it the cost of the stimulus package ($787 billion) and the bank bailout ($700 and counting).

It is the equivalent of spending a dollar every second for 412,000 years. You'd have to have started spending at around the time man started making axe heads out of flint apparently.

1200 EST More on Hillary and China's human rights

Kim Ghattas

Kim Ghattas: Now congressmen are joining human rights groups to criticise Hillary Clinton.

Two of them, Republicans Frank Wolf and Chris Smith, are holding a conference today to protest against her being mostly silent on human rights in China as reports emerged that activists were harassed and detained during her visit.

She did not meet with any dissidents during her two-day stop in China.

0200 EST Hillary and China's human rights

Hillary Clinton and Hu Jintao, 21/02
All smiles - but Mrs Clinton's agenda in China upset some of her supporters as well as her critics

Kim Ghattas: Hillary Clinton's being harshly criticised by human-rights groups and some supporters for being mostly silent on human rights in China as reports emerged that activists were harassed and detained during her visit.

Before this visit, she was remembered in Beijing for upsetting the authorities with comments she made in 1995 as first lady about human rights. Speaking during a UN conference she denounced the way women were treated in China and declared that "women's' rights are human rights".

So ahead of her first trip to China as secretary of state, reporters asked her repeatedly whether she would raise the issue of human rights, Tibet and Burma. She said she would but as part of a larger agenda. She said that pressing China on those issues should not interfere with attempts to find ways to engage the Chinese and get them on board to deal with the global economic crisis and climate change.

It's perhaps a sign of how bad things are in Washington and how much the US needs China. But some argue that bringing up human rights will not stop China from co-operating on other matters.


1730 EST More on detention policy

Adam Brookes

Adam Brookes: Further to my earlier post on Guantanamo, legal activists - notably the ACLU - are professing disappointment at another manifestation of the Obama administration's detention policy (or lack of it).

In a court filing last Friday, the Justice Department argued to a judge that detainees held at Bagram in Afghanistan do not have the right to challenge their detention in US courts. The ACLU says the Obama Justice Department is simply continuing the policies of its predecessor. It's likely, however, that the new Attorney General simply hasn't worked up a new policy yet.

1720 EST Fiscal responsibility summit

Vice President Joe Biden holds his head as he and President Barack Obama attend a summit to discuss the subject of fiscal responsibility
Stimulating debate - Vice-President Biden and President Obama attend a summit on "fiscal responsibility" at the White House

1644 EST Binyam Mohammed returns home

Adam Brookes

Adam Brookes: So Binyam Mohamad heads to the UK from Guantanamo Bay. In the coming days, expect him to make powerful allegations against the US and UK intelligence agencies and military regarding the way he was treated while in custody.

He will say that he was tortured. But will either the US or UK governments comment on his allegations? Will the Obama administration - or rather, the soldiers and the spooks under the Obama administration - be prepared to lift the lid at all on what happened to Binyam Mohamed in the last seven years? Or any other detainee, for that matter?

We are assured by Admiral Patrick M Wash that his investigation of conditions at Guantanamo Bay has found that the facility is 'in compliance' with Article Three of the Geneva Convention. But he acknowledges that when inmates see that the Chinese Uighurs still haven't been released, even though they have been cleared of any crime, they become 'frustrated'.

1430 EST Comings and goings at Guantanamo Bay

James Coomarasamy

James Coomarasamy: On the way out: Binyam Mohammed, the Ethiopian-born UK resident, who's become the prison camp's first detainee to be released under the Obama Administration.

On the way in (for one day only): Eric Holder, the new US Attorney General, whose job is to negotiate the legal minefield surrounding Guantanamo's closure. His fact-finding mission comes amid mounting concern from some civil liberties' groups, that the new government's initial, clear position on the more dubious practices associated with the "war on terror" is becoming somewhat muddied.

President Obama has sidestepped questions about his willingness to investigate allegations of torture and has been criticised for invoking the state secret privilege to deny Binyam Mohammed and others their day in a federal court.

As the Justice Department statement on Mohammed's release makes clear, Mr Obama wants other countries to help shoulder the burden, as he struggles with the legal, national security and political complexities of following through on his early, headline-grabbing pledge to close Guantanamo Bay within a year.


1830 EST Budget challenge ahead

Kevin Connolly

Kevin Connolly: And so begins another "big week" for the Obama administration, which hasn't had any small weeks yet.

The agenda for the coming days is dominated by the task of squaring the circle - the president will publish outline budget proposals which will apparently explain how he will not only borrow and spend the vast amounts of money in the stimulus package, but also cut America's budget deficit in half by the end of his (first?) term.

It's estimated the deficit this year could hit an eye-watering $1.3tn and briefings from officials suggest Mr Obama wants to cut it to around $533bn - hardly small change, but a big improvement.

The White House thinks this can be done by allowing George W Bush's tax breaks for the well-paid to expire and reducing the military commitment in Iraq - but it's also talking about eliminating "waste" in government.

That last item will cause most of the problems - it's hard for a president whose party believes in big government (and has just given it an extra $787bn) to start making deep cuts.

Mr Obama has changed lots of the rules of American politics - but being a big spender AND a budget balancer? That really would be something.


2145 EST Brown takes first prize

Kevin Connolly

Kevin Connolly: Diplomats are generally far too dignified as a group to indulge in anything so uncouth as jockeying for position, and any scrabbling for advantage in their line of work is usually done pretty discreetly.

But make no mistake about it, there's been intense competition among European leaders to secure the first invitation to the Obama White House.

Nicholas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel even went to the trouble of penning a joint newspaper article (or at least instructing their officials to write one) calling for a new era of transatlantic co-operation.

But to no avail. The White House has issued its first invitation to a European leader of the Obama presidency, and it's gone to Gordon Brown. Rewarding a loyal ally in the fields of security and intelligence trumped the impulse to usher in a new relationship between the rest of Europe and post-Bush America.

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso beat them all to it, but you could view that as a sympathetic gesture from Mr Obama to a friend in trouble at home.

It's an interesting thought that all the politicians clamouring for invites to Washington have obviously decided that Mr Obama's undoubted celebrity charisma will rub off on them, rather than overshadow them. We'll see.

0100 EST Looking to the heavens

Kevin Connolly

Kevin Connolly: It is not unusual, of course, to hear the name of the Almighty invoked in American politics - but Jesus Christ is popping up at the moment in a way which is new to me.

A lobbying group opposed to the stimulus package - pushing the Republican idea that it's all about Big Government wasting Your Money - has come up with a handy calculation.

In a TV advertising spot, it says if you'd started spending money at the rate of $1m a day since the day Christ was born and carried on up to the present day, you still wouldn't have run through as much money as Congress voted to approve in the stimulus bill (about $800bn).

The sheer scale of the numbers involved is encouraging more and more exotic devices for conveying a sense of scale.

This new statistic is as compelling as the one about how the bail-out funds in total would stretch 63 miles into the sky if you cashed them in $1,000 bills and piled them on top of each other. Or was it 64 miles?

1815 EST Canada sets bar high

Kevin Connolly

Kevin Connolly: Flying back from Ottawa, where Mr Obama's brief stopover yesterday was treated like a combination of a Beatles Reunion and a papal visit, I couldn't help noticing the enthusiasm (to put it mildly) with which his every word and gesture was applauded.

The next day's Globe and Mail (whose coverage was so extensive it kept me going until I was safely back in Washington) even managed to make light of Mr Obama's opening remarks, which started off with the words "It's a pleasure to be here in Iowa... er... Ottawa".

The Globe and Mail found it "easy to forgive" - I wonder if they'd have extended the same latitude to George W Bush.

The same tone of breathless enthusiasm greeted Mr Obama's use of a single word of French in his news conference - "merci" - which was described as having sent French-Canadian reporters into "giddy delight".

We can probably expect Mr Obama - who is almost certainly the most famous and the most popular person in the world at the moment - to be greeted with enthusiasm wherever he goes, at least in the early part of his presidency.

Canada has set the bar pretty high.

0416 EST Hillary's North Korea headache

Kim Ghattas

Kim Ghattas: I've flown to Seoul ahead of Hillary Clinton to get a sense of what South Korea is expecting from the new US administration.

North Korea's nuclear programme will top the agenda of talks here and there's been quite a bit of tension between the two Koreas recently, especially amidst reports that Pyongyang is preparing to test a long range missile.

The North has also accused Seoul and Washington of preparing to invade North Korea. They deny trying to grab the attention of the Obama administration but they're clearly trying to improve their bargaining position for whenever the talks resume.

In addition, the North Koreans seem to be the ones mostly driving the process - they got quite a few concessions from the Bush administration and have still not given up much themselves.

At the end of her term, Condoleezza Rice said "only an idiot would trust" the North Koreans which is why Washington was insistent on verifying Pyongyang's declaration about its nukes.

But much to the dismay of hardliners in Washington, President George W Bush and Dr Rice had "trusted" the process enough to remove the reclusive state from the list of sponsors of terrorism last summer before the declaration was verified.

Hardliners are now warning Mrs Clinton not to make the same "trust" mistake because when it comes to North Korea, it will be mostly continuity, not change, under Obama.

Continuity to the extent that Chris Hill, the top North Korea negotiator under Bush, is still in his position in the new administration - at least for now.

So while there is some hope in Seoul that Hillary Clinton will somehow be able to kick-start the denuclearisation talks that stalled late last year, there's no sign yet of how the new administration might achieve that and what new proposals they might be bringing.

One new element is the man who is expected to be appointed to replace Hill - Steve Bosworth. A Tufts professor, he recently travelled to Pyongyang with other experts on a private mission. The group's report raises serious questions in its assessment of the situation.

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