Barack Obama prefers we don't think about him – or American politics – in terms of black and white. But yesterday, as he prepared to launch a marathon effort to remake the country's healthcare landscape, we were asked to ponder something about him few of us had noticed before: flecks of grey.
It has come on awfully fast. Take a close look at pictures of the new President about a year ago as he was preparing to enter the final stretches of the election campaign against first Hillary Clinton (for the nomination) and then John McCain. His hair is close-cropped, as always, and quite black. Squint at pictures of him at the White House yesterday for his healthcare summit and there you will see it. Salt has crept into the pepper.
Among those drawing attention to the change is Deborah Willis, who is the co-author of a book tracing Mr Obama through the election all the way to the inauguration in January called Obama: The Historic Campaign in Photographs. "I started noticing it toward the end of the campaign and leading up to inauguration," she noted.
For those cynical enough to suspect that Mr Obama may have added the grey cosmetically to produce the effect of gravitas, they could consult his barber, who goes by the name of Zariff. Not true, he vowed to The New York Times. "I can tell you that his hair is 100 per cent natural. He wouldn't get it coloured." That would imply that Mr Obama would not be tempted to take the opposite tack, and to suppress the grey with an occasional brush of hair dye.
They always suspected Ronald Reagan – dark and lustrous into considerable old age – of dipping into the hair dye bottle, but other presidents have turned grey without drama. Bill Clinton and George Bush were sworn in with touches of grey and left office with little but grey on their heads.
It comes with the territory. The months of campaigning for Mr Obama were hardly short on stress, a condition that contributes to greying, according to follicular experts. And while taking on the job he so eagerly sought has allowed him a less fraught travel schedule and more family time, there are other pressures, like the economy.
And healthcare reform, the issue that some thought might be sidelined for now because of the severity of the economic crisis, but which Mr Obama took up anyway yesterday. He invited a crowd of about 150 people to the White House to begin discussing options, including other political leaders, doctors, nurses, insurance executives and hospital managers.
Mr Obama, indeed, insists that containing the spiralling costs of healthcare and expanding coverage to the 46 million Americans who currently don't have it is part of the prescription for economic recovery. "The cost of healthcare now causes a bankruptcy in America every 30 seconds. By the end of the year, it could cause 1.5 million Americans to lose their homes," he told his guests.
"If we want to create jobs and rebuild our economy, then we must address the crushing cost of health care this year, in this administration. Making investments in reform now, investments that will dramatically lower costs, won't add to our budget deficits in the long term – rather, it is one of the best ways to reduce them," he added.
The President set aside $634bn (£450bn) for healthcare reform in the 2010 budget recently submitted to Congress. But he embarks on the debate aware of the difficulties experienced by Bill and Hillary Clinton when they made a similar attempt in the Nineties and of the howls that will inevitably come from some Republicans that universal healthcare equals "socialised medicine".Reuse content