Obama: one month in the White House

He has committed a few rookie errors and had to deal with a global recession that is only getting worse, but Barack Obama is yet to lose the gloss that won him the election. Rupert Cornwell reports
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The Independent US

After a month of life under Barack Obama, one thing is clear. Even Franklin Roosevelt, the leader who took power amid a crisis most closely resembling today's, may have had it easy by comparison. In fact, on this date in 1933, when transitions were even longer and presidential inaugurations took place on 4 March, FDR wasn't even in office. But when he did take command, the economy was already hitting rock bottom. The recession Obama inherited is by contrast deepening by the day – and no one knows where the bottom is.

In this infancy of the Obama presidency, the economy has not merely been centre stage – it has occupied the entire stage. By historical yardsticks, he has been a whirlwind of activism since 20 January. Already, three major measures have been signed into law: a bill ensuring workplace pay equality between men and women, another extending health-care coverage to four million children, and the $780bn (£545bn) stimulus package, the largest exercise of its kind in American history. This week he presented a $275bn plan, more ambitious than expected, aimed at shoring up the US housing market.

There have been miscues. The rash of failed nominations were a distraction and proof that Obama, after all, does not walk on water. In the case of Tom Daschle, the intended health secretary, his withdrawal has further complicated the desperately tricky but desperately needed reform of the US health-care system.

The botched rollout of measures to revive the banking system was another misjudgement. After great hype, the steps unveiled by Timothy Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, seemed merely a second dose of the discredited Bush/Paulson therapy, and were notably lacking in detail. Others complain about Obama's apocalyptic language about the "catastrophe" in waiting if the government doesn't get it right. Facile optimism is the last thing the US needs but on occasion Obama seems to project not the cheery confidence of FDR, but a rational pessimism made all the more disconcerting by the obvious force of his intellect.

Then there was the failed bipartisan outreach to the Republicans over the stimulus package. Obama was naive, they said, to expect Washington to change its ways; such are the pitfalls of inexperience. But Obama has lost nothing in the process (apart from a little innocence) while his opponents are playing a dangerous game if they persist in their intransigence at a time of national crisis. In any case, it's all part of the learning process that any president faces.

Inevitably, foreign policy has taken a back seat to the unfolding economic drama. But there too, he has made important symbolic changes. His first call to a foreign leader went not to a British, Russian, Japanese, or Israeli prime minister, but to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President. His first TV interview was with the Dubai-based satellite network Al Arabiya. He has reiterated his pledge to talk to Iran and announced the closure within 12 months of the Guantanamo Bay prison, symbol par excellence of everything the world detested about George Bush.

The honeymoon cannot last. Obama has ruled out a witchhunt of those in the CIA and and at the Justice Department over torture abuses; indeed, he has quietly signalled he will retain some of the controversial powers arrogated by the Bush administration.

After their ecstatic welcome of Obama, US allies must soon decide whether to expand their efforts in Afghanistan, as he is demanding. Iraq may be edging towards normality of sorts but Obama's ability to bring a Middle East settlement closer will face an acid test if, as seems likely, hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu becomes the next Israeli leader.

Even so, it's been a productive beginning. But then again, that was to be expected. The first months of any new administration are usually its most successful, when the new president's election victory is fresh in minds and public support is high. Far more important, Obama's America needs government interventionism on a scale unmatched since the Great Depression. The question is less whether he is doing too much – even the most diehard Republican now concedes that deregulated capitalism does not have all the answers – it is whether enough is being done.

Here, the slow process of installing a new administration is an obstacle. At the best of times, étatisme is not the American way. Right now, however, many of the departments and agencies who must lead the charge of government activism have only their top person in place. Most of the second, third and fourth ranking officials – the senior political appointees who will have a key part to play in turning words into deeds – have yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

A greater problem is that no one knows if the measures will work. Liberal economists say the stimulus package should have been twice as large. Others say the package is already loading the country with unrepayable debt. One thing is clear: a momentous step has been taken but its success or failure may not become apparent for a year or more.

The same goes for part two of the bank rescue package, arguably more important than the stimulus. Even the experts are not sure what will do the trick. Obama may have to nationalise swathes of the banking system, albeit temporarily. Even Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chairman and discredited high priest of laissez-faire economics, concedes nationalisation may be the least bad option. And there's the small matter of the US motor industry, whose fate will be decided in Month Two of this presidency. With so much on his plate, it's a miracle Obama functions at all.

Outwardly, he seems the Obama of the election campaign: unflustered, projecting clear thought processes and inner calm. These are early days, and every presidency is a work in progress, but you don't get a second chance to make a first impression. The first impression of Obama is of a resolute pragmatist, hoping for the best yet aware that on occasion he will deliver less. "I screwed up," he admitted after the Daschle debacle. On the broader stage, however, he surely hasn't screwed up. But he's still got 47 months of his first term to prove his admirers wrong.

The Independent's focus group give their verdicts

Mary Beth Ray, 48, Republican, Washington DC, lawyer and housewife

Even Republicans want Obama to succeed. But expectations are so high Obama cannot possibly meet them all. Despite his mantra for change, Washington is awash with Clinton-era bureaucrats, many of whom "forgot" to pay their taxes. Issues like ethics, North Korea, free trade and Guantanamo that looked black and white during the campaign suddenly appear in shades of grey.

Laura De Busk, 38, Democrat, Virginia, housewife

The first month has been like the campaign, filled with highs and lows. Overall, I have been very impressed. I think he has a strong understanding of this very complicated economic crisis and has a short, mid and long-term plan to move out of it. It was disappointing to see the Republicans'

partisan reaction to the stimulus bill, but I think he has set the right tone: continuing to reach out to them, but moving ahead.

Joseph McManus, 62, Republican, Washington DC, lawyer

President Obama wants everyone to listen to what he says, not what he does: He says we will close Guantanamo, but let's keep it going for a year and see. He says no more CIA renditions, but his CIA director says no more unless we really have to. Don't get me wrong, I like his actions; he's a much better salesman than President Bush. On the economy, it's too early to judge. I allow he has done as well as could be expected ... so far.

Renee Van Vechten, 39 Democrat, California, Professor, Political Science

"Cautious optimism" is in the air. Even if the new Messiah has yet to save the world from economic ruin, thankfully he's done nothing to warrant early crucifixion. And even if Republicans aren't joining his congregation, Obama has enlisted brilliant minds to help rebuild altars to decency and reason that will in turn help restore many Americans' faith in government, and other countries' faith in us.

A month of milestones

* On Tuesday, Mr Obama signed his $787bn economic stimulus plan into law. It took weeks of wrangling to get through Congress, no Republicans in the House of Representatives backed it, but was still passed at break-neck speed by Washington standards.

* On Wednesday, he unveiled a $275bn plan to save up to 9 million homes from foreclosure. The housing collapse is at the core of the crisis.

* A sweeping strategy to bail out the banking system with mixed private/public funds was presented this month. Potential cost: $2.5trln.

* Camp X-ray at Guantanamo Bay will be closed within a year (though where the detainees will go is unclear). US agents banned from using torture.

* Mr Obama has also put in motion a change in rules to allow states to set stricter car emission limits.

* Took steps to end influence of lobbyists and signed an order tightening ethics rules at the White House.

What the commentators say

Steve Clemons Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation think-tank

Except for those who naively thought that peace might break out the moment Obama swore his oath of office, his first month has not been bad when it comes to foreign policy. On the plus side, Obama has for the moment outsmarted those who tried to hijack his foreign policy via the Israel-Gaza crisis. He appointed former Senator George Mitchell, liked by Israelis and Arabs, rather than the more neo-conservative-tilting Dennis Ross as his super-envoy in the region. Good move. Obama also gave his first formal interview to Al Arabiya, thus going to every Arab and Muslim capital of the world. He asked Hillary Clinton to go to Asia first to show the region's priority in his global map. What we haven't seen yet is the new design. Obama is struggling with how to approach America and Nato's deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and he is throwing resources at the problems. His biggest challenge of all is time.

Arianna Huffington Founder and editor of the Huffington Post

Obama has dusted off and removed the cobwebs from one of the most important tools a president has: the bully pulpit. Bush mostly kept it in storage, only pulling it out to urge us to go shopping. Obama is using it regularly – and very effectively. I like that he isn't trying to cheerlead us through the economic meltdown. From his sober inauguration message that "the time has come to set aside childish things" to his mortgage rescue plan speech, in which he said that "solving this crisis will require more than resources – it will require all of us to take responsibility," he has struck the right tone for our challenging times. On the foreclosure package, I have two questions. Why didn't that happen last November when we bailed out the American banks? And why are we spending $75bn to bail out American homeowners and $750bn to help out American bankers? American bankers have become so clueless, so out of touch, it reminds me a little of Marie Antoinette.

Eric Schlosser Author of Fast Food Nation

President Obama has done far more good for the environment during his first month in office than his predecessor accomplished in eight years. But the challenges that Obama faces are enormous. He must simultaneously deal with the need for a sustainable energy policy, the threat of global warming, and a worldwide financial collapse. Solving any of those problems isn't going to be easy. Confronting all three, when the demands of each one may conflict, is going to be remarkably tough. It's like buying a beautiful house that you love, walking in the front door, and realising that the previous owner has totally trashed the place. The roof leaks, the windows are smashed, the furnace is busted, and the foundation's badly cracked. Where to begin? It is amazing how much devastation the Bush administration caused to both the natural and the man-made environment in such a brief period of time.

Professor Joseph Stiglitz Professor of Economics, Columbia University and former World Bank Chief economist

The good news is that he has now come out with all three pillars of his economic strategy. For anybody who was watching with amazement the paralysis of the Bush administration, it feels such a relief that that finally something is happening. So it is an extraordinarily positive change. On the other hand, I think that as an economist there is some disappointment in several key ingredients. Two questions: Was it necessary to seek bipartisan support from the Republicans? And are we giving in too much to the banks that gave us the problems in first place? The stimulus package has too much in the way of tax cuts and too little help for the individual states. Secondly, the (house) foreclosure plan is not comprehensive enough.