Page last updated at 16:25 GMT, Monday, 23 March 2009

Obama diary: Days 51-60

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.


1318 EST Obama on Leno

Rajini Vaidyanathan

Rajini Vaidyanathan: Barack Obama has achieved many career firsts. His appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno last night marked another, as the first sitting president to appear on late-night talk show.


1611 EST The Budget could be about to hit an iceberg

Max Deveson

Max Deveson: According to Politico, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) will release a report tomorrow detailing what it thinks President Obama's Budget will actually cost.

If Politico's facts are correct, the report could be a big problem for the administration - the CBO is going to say that the Budget will add $1.5tn more debt than the White House has estimated.

Figures like that could cause moderate Senators - who are already skittish about the cost of Mr Obama's ambitious programme - to panic and withdraw their support for the Budget.

We can expect members of the Obama team and proponents of healthcare reform to push back hard against the CBO's estimates tomorrow.

1600 AIG vote

James Coomarasamy

James Coomarasamy: The US House of Representatives has voted to to impose a 90% tax on bonuses awarded to executives from companies - such as the insurance giant AIG - which receive large amounts of federal bailout funds. The bill - which has yet to be considered by the Senate - passed by 328-93.

This was a vote that reflected the public anger over the AIG bonuses. 85 House Republicans joined with Democrats to approve the measure.

This was despite opposition from Republican leaders, who argued that the measure was intended to divert attention from questions about the Obama administration's handling of the controversy.

The tax - which the Senate will now consider - would apply to anyone earning more than $250,000, (171,000) in firms that receive over $5bn of public money.

1520 EST It's all about Af/Pak

Kim Ghattas

Kim Ghattas: The expected announcements about the administration's policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan are cause for some apprehension for the two countries in question.

One diplomat told me it was because no one was 100% sure what Washington was planning, so there was some uncertainty, especially as reports emerged that the US may expand missile strikes inside Pakistan against militants there.

In countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan as well as some countries in the Middle East, people often have the feeling, rightly or wrongly, that they are at the receiving end of American foreign policy and have no power to do anything about it.

But another diplomat told me he was pleasantly surprised by how much the administration was consulting with the two countries. He said he had never seen this before.

This bodes well for how the review might go down with those concerned, not as an edict but as the result of real consultations.


1644 EST More on the Afghan review

Kim Ghattas

Kim Ghattas: There's a lot of guesswork going on about when an announcement will be made and where.

We're told that most of the review is already in the hands of the president, who will now study it and hold meetings with top officials.

It's also likely that he will consult with NATO allies and perhaps even with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Analysts say that the where and how of the announcement could be critical for its success. "If this announcement comes from Washington, that 'this is how we're going to save the world', we will have made the wrong choice at the front end," expert Rick Barton from CSIS told me.

A more integrated US approach but also a more coordinated regional approach, bringing allies on board, will be essential.

That's why there's some suggestion that the announcement could come during the conference on Afghanistan that is to be held in the Hague on 31 March, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be attending, or during the Nato summit in Strasbourg, which will be Obama's first European trip.

1549 EST The President's bracket

Rajini Vaidyanathan

Rajini Vaidyanathan: President Obama has made no secret of the fact he's obsessed with basketball, and although he has much weighing on his mind, like the economic crisis, his beloved sport hasn't lost out.

On Thursday, the annual NCAA tournament begins - the college basketball competition is a huge fixture in the US sporting calendar.

Mr Obama discusses his basketball picks

It also appears to be a huge fixture for the President, who took time out of his busy schedule to share his predictions for the tournament with sports channel ESPN.

In his "bracket" Mr Obama picked Louisville (1 seed), Memphis (2), Pittsburgh (1), and North Carolina (1) as the teams he thinks will make it to the final four in the contest. The White House website describes the President's choices as "safe options".

When asked whether he'll be able to break away from his busy schedule to watch some of the opening games on Thursday, Mr Obama replied: "I think the chances are pretty high" .

1510 EST Afghan policy shaping up

Kim Ghattas

Kim Ghattas: Details are emerging of Obama's review of US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan.

We know already that the US is planning to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. There will also be a lot more focus on aid projects, and on making sure that money is used wisely. When Richard Holbrook was appointed as special representative for the region, he spoke of a "chaotic foreign assistance program".

There is a growing sense that the review will concentrate more on Pakistan. While the problems in Afghanistan are great, experts believe that if Pakistani militants are not brought under control, any future success in Afghanistan will be undermined. Washington will need to get the Pakistani government on board.

Western diplomats also tell me that while the focus of the review will clearly be on Afghanistan/Pakistan, the review will have a broader reach - it will codify Obama's strategy of reaching out to the wider Muslim world.

For America's security goals to be achieved, the administration will argue, people in Afghanistan and Pakistan will need to feel included and to believe that the struggle against extremism is a battle for a better future for them.

1504 EST If Palin had been running the show...

The BBC's North America Editor, Justin Webb, draws readers' attention to a columnist who argues that for all the sneering at Sarah Palin's intellect during last year's election campaign, the winners of that election have committed a series of embarassing gaffes since assuming office.


1650 EST Iran policy developing

Kim Ghattas

Kim Ghattas: The Obama administration is finalising its policy for engaging Iran.


1711 EST Talks with Hamas?

Kim Ghattas

Kim Ghattas: The idea of Washington talking to Hamas has popped up again with British MPs meeting the Hamas leader in Damascus, Khaled Meshaal, over the weekend, and the publication of a report in the Boston Globe about a letter to Obama urging him to consider talking to the militants to see if they can be persuaded to disarm and join the peace process.

A senior US official insists it's unlikely to happen because of legislation restricting any contact with the group, which is listed as a terrorist organisation by the State Department.

It's possible, of course, that the Obama administration would consider secret talks through unofficial channels to test the waters, but there's no sign of that yet.

A seasoned Middle East hand also notes that talks with Hamas would further undermine the Palestinian Authority. There might be some room for manoeuvre if the Palestinians form a government of national unity, that includes technocrats loosely affiliated with Hamas.

1514 EST Polling Obama

President Obama's approval ratings have - like those of his predecessors - gone down since he entered the White House. The BBC's North America Editor Justin Webb takes a look at how President Obama's post-inauguration polling slump measures up to previous presidents'.

1428 EST Bonus bashing

James Coomarasamy

James Coomarasamy: President Obama has called on his Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to use all legal means to block the controversial bonuses that have been awarded to executives at the insurance giant AIG.

AIG, which received about $180bn in public bailout money, has announced that it intends to pay out $165m in executive bonuses.

President Obama didn't mince his words. Tapping into the growing sense of public anger here, he said it was hard to understand how a corporation in financial distress due to recklessness and greed could offer its derivatives traders any bonuses, let alone $165m. He said he'd asked his Treasury Secretary to pursue every legal avenue to block the bonuses, describing them as an "outrage" to taxpayers who were keeping the huge insurance company afloat.

"This isn't just a matter of dollars and cents," the president added. "It's about our fundamental values."

1253 EST Cover star

Rajini Vaidyanathan
Rajini Vaidyanathan: Michelle Obama has given her first sit-down TV interview since she became First Lady.

In the interview, which was broadcast on ABC's Good Morning America, Mrs Obama covers a range of topics, from her interest in helping military families, to her husband's handling of the economic crisis, and of course her role as "mom-in-chief".

Nothing she says in the interview is particularly unexpected - Mrs Obama is as comfortable talking about serious issues and causes as she is joking about the huge interest in her toned arms. The First Lady has conducted several high profile interviews recently, not just with the political media, but also magazines like "People", "Vogue" and Oprah Winfrey's "O". In all those instances she's featured as the cover star.

So far, Michelle Obama isn't shying away from the huge interest surrounding her and her family, but is instead, giving the media enough material to sustain it.

For her it's a chance to promote her pet causes like helping military families. But it could also come in handy for her husband, who has huge political challenges to deal with in terms of the economic crisis . Showing the American public that the Obamas are a down-to-earth family who can relate to people's problems could help President Obama convince voters that his stimulus package will help them.


1250 EST Transatlantic split

Kim Ghattas

Kim Ghattas: There's a split between Washington and London over Hezbollah.

The UK decided to restart low-level contact with the political wing of the militant Lebanese group last week, but a senior US official said he was unhappy with the decision and would have liked Britain to explain "the difference between the political, military and social wings of Hezbollah because we don't see a difference between the integrated leadership as they see it."

The US lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation and blames it for the 1983 bomb attack on the US Marine barracks in Beirut which killed 241 Marines. Washington believes that Imad Mughinyyeh, a top Hezbollah commander was the mastermind. He was killed last year in Damascus and the US official said life in Lebanon was "marred" by posters "extolling the virtues" of Imad Mughniyyeh all over south Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold.

Asked if they had been informed about the British decision, the official said that "informed under a previous administration" was a more accurate description. This suggests the Obama team had not been given enough notice. A British diplomat told me the decision was driven by the belief that it is possible to encourage Hezbollah to move away from violence and become an integral part of Lebanese politics.

I put it to him that the same argument could be made for engaging Hamas; he said the Palestinian group had to first recognise Israel's right to exist.

But Hezbollah doesn't recognise Israel's right to exist either...


1300 EST Freeman's fall

Richard Lister

Richard Lister: The withdrawal of the Obama administration's nominee to Chair the National Intelligence Committee has triggered a debate about the power of the Israeli lobby.

In a letter explaining his withdrawal from the appointment process, Charles Freeman launched a blistering attack on what he called the "Israel lobby".

He said it had lied about his record, smeared his character and attacked his credibility. Had he become Chair of the National Intelligence Committee, Mr Freeman said, the attacks would have continued and undermined America's intelligence agencies.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee - one of Washington's most influential lobby groups - has denied taking a formal position on Mr Freeman. But many other pro-Israeli commentators had strongly attacked the appointment, accusing him of being too close to Saudi Arabia, a country where he was once the US Ambassador.

His criticisms of Israeli government policy and past comments in favour of the Chinese government were also highlighted.

Mr Freeman had been touted by the Administration as someone who could examine both sides of an argument. Mr Freeman said his treatment raises questions about the Obama team's ability to make independent decisions about Middle East policy.


1738 EST Guantanamo manoeuvres

Jonathan Beale

Jonathan Beale: It's slow progress, but Team Obama are inching their way towards the goal of closing down Guantanamo.

Attorney General Eric Holder has today named two officials to lead a Task Force reviewing interrogation and detention policy.

More announcements could follow - including the possible appointment of a Special Envoy specifically charged with closing down the prison camp.

The name in the frame is Dan Fried - currently the senior US diplomat dealing with Europe. The hope is that Mr Fried can utilise his contacts on the continent.

But getting European countries to agree to resettle detainees - at least the ones cleared for release - will not prove easy. Mr Fried should know - he was part of the Bush administration that tried and largely failed.

While everyone in Europe thinks it's a smashing idea to close down Guantanamo, they are hardly falling over each other to make it happen.

1236 EST G20 agenda

Richard Lister

Richard Lister: President Obama has set out his priorities for the forthcoming G20 summit in London.

He described the summit as a critical meeting at a critical time, and said that no matter what reforms the United States puts in place, a continuing deterioration in the global economy would set America back.

With that in mind he said he had two goals for the G20; to press for concerted international action to jumpstart the world economy and overhaul the regulations governing the financial industry.

Although he didn't criticise other nations directly he made clear he expected them to follow America's lead in putting large-scale fiscal stimulus measures in place. The US Congress has already approved a spending package worth almost eight hundred billion dollars and leading members of the Democratic party have suggested further such measures may yet be required.

He also warned against the dangers of protectionism, saying it's important for countries to continue to embrace world trade and ensure that emerging markets remain stable.

0930 EST Doing too much?

World News America presenter Matt Frei takes a look at President Obama's ambitious policy agenda and asks - has he bitten off more than he can chew?

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