Page last updated at 00:08 GMT, Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Fifty days of the Obama presidency

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Washington

It is unreasonable, premature, misleading and a poor guide to the future, but every US President since Franklin D Roosevelt has had to endure the first judgements on their leadership at the end of their first 100 days in office.

Barack Obama
Mr Obama's presidency has begun at a swift pace

Barack Obama is of course only half-way to that point, but since he leads a nation which is wired for instant communication in the speeded-up world of the 21st century it seems reasonable to take a snapshot of how he is doing so far.

His presidency began in the strangest of atmospheres which mingled euphoria at the tearing down of the highest racial barrier of them all with a deep sense of unease at the worsening recession.

And while that unease is proving more durable than the euphoria of inauguration day, Mr Obama has already done enough to suggest that he has learned the lessons left by his predecessors about how to start a presidency - and how not to.

Crisis or opportunity?

The key lesson probably came directly from FDR, who started his presidency at a blistering pace, securing the passage of 15 major pieces of legislation through Congress in his first three months or so in office as he sought to re-assure Americans that Washington had the vision and power to save capitalism in the USA.

Compare that with Mr Obama's speed out of the blocks.

The stimulus programme is already law, a budget with an eye-watering deficit has been passed and a deadline set for the withdrawal of US combat brigades from Iraq.

He has thrown in healthcare reform too - apparently on the principle that when your problems are immense enough they almost amount to a kind of opportunity.

Since entering the White House, Mr Obama has:
Ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp
Outlawed the use of harsh interrogation techniques by the CIA
Enabled states to set tougher car emissions standards
Reversed the ban on federal funding for aid agencies that perform abortions
Removed "conscience" protections for health workers who refuse to issue contraception

And crucially, Mr Obama has also picked one or two hugely symbolic issues and used them to draw a line under the era of George W Bush.

By announcing the closure of Guantanamo Bay and reversing Mr Bush's ban on the use of federal funds to pay for embryonic stem cell research, Mr Obama sent a signal that at all sorts of cultural, diplomatic, moral and political levels the United States under his presidency was going to be a profoundly different place both at home and abroad.

This might seem rather early to be passing judgement but it is in the immediate aftermath of victory that the lustre of presidential power is brightest - the best presidents capitalise on that early political momentum. There is no saying how long it will last.

And two more points of comparison with Roosevelt - first the communication skills.

FDR could write elegantly and speak compellingly. He utilised the new power of radio to sell policy directly to the people, just as Mr Obama does through his televised speeches and through the internet.

And more nebulously, there is the question of demeanour.

Mr Roosevelt, who took over as the Great Depression ground the confidence and vitality out of American life, was relentlessly upbeat.

Mr Obama - coming to power at a time when many voters are bewildered by a financial collapse they barely understand - radiates competence and confidence.

He grasps the importance of looking presidential, and already plays the role convincingly.


As Mr Obama prepared to take office, he faced one of the most crowded in-trays in history.

Not just rising unemployment, the healthcare crisis, the crumbling infrastructure, the collapse of consumer spending and the near-collapse of the banking system, but wars on two fronts and signs of problems bubbling to the surface in any number of trouble spots around the world.

The political boldness and the personal sure-footedness are unmistakable.

The pleasure that Mr Obama clearly took in hosting his musical hero Stevie Wonder at the White House and hiring the disco-granddads of Earth, Wind and Fire to play at the Governor's Ball suggest a man who is comfortable with the office and determined to put his own stamp on it.

The [stem-cell] ruling is one of a growing number of changes that the new president has made to George W Bush's policy legacy
Jonathan Beale

Michelle Obama so far has struck all the right notes as First Lady and America has been charmed by the Obama children and their (so far still unrequited) search for a new first puppy.

The family occupies newspaper and magazine front pages in a way not seen the heyday of the Kennedys back at the start of the 1960s and their position in the public's affections seems secure.

And yet the question of what will happen to the economy still hangs across Mr Obama's America like a shadow, for all his confidence and self-assurance.

The stock market has fallen steadily since the day of his inauguration and there is no sign that it will recover anytime soon - the greatest unanswered question so far is whether or not the administration has a convincing answer to the banking crisis which lies at the heart of this recession.

There are plans to help homeowners and extra funds have been set aside to provide further help to the banks, but in the absence of a comprehensive financial package doubts among the business community persist as to whether the administration has really come up with the answers.

Colossal burden

And then there is that deficit.

Economically, there are questions that will not be answered for years, let alone within 100 days

Mr Obama's plans for the economy (including lots of green energy and an expansion of healthcare) involve gigantic amounts of borrowing and spending now - all of which is going to have be paid for in the end.

It is part of his political style to try to anticipate the complaints of his critics, so he has already started talking like a fiscal hawk about cutting borrowing in the future.

But the truth is that he has pushed the budget deficit to a hugely inflated level - $1.75tn (1.27tn) - and that is a colossal burden even for the United States.

So economically, there are questions that will not be answered for years, let alone within 100 days.

And there are so many issues in that in-tray that we will simply have to wait for answers on, everything from the handling of Iran and North Korea to the future of the domestic auto industry.

But, after all, we are only halfway to that first marker post.

The interim judgement has to be that Mr Obama has seized the task with energy and imagination. Most of the doubts relate in one way or another to the sheer scale of that inherited task.

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