The first 100 days: A political fantasy

It could all have been so different: Hillary Clinton believed she was waltzing to the White House; so did John McCain. David Usborne indulges in a little harmless what-might-have-been

President Hillary Clinton

Of this she can be certain: she has had a smoother first few months than her husband Bill managed back in 1992. True, there have been moments of difficulty, not least in March when she seemed to be on the brink of attacking Iran. And managing the West Wing tensions between the first husband and Vice-President Obama has not been easy.

But even the harshest critics of Hillary Clinton will acknowledge that, on some levels, she has exceeded expectations. Above all, the Clinton-Obama White House has displayed an uncommon degree of focus and discipline. If the inaugural ball dress was a humiliating disaster, it has mostly been uphill since then.

Above all, she has resisted the temptation to tackle too many things too soon (remember how Bill got distracted by the "gays in the military" fracas, not to mention Hillary's own doomed attempt to craft universal healthcare?) This President Clinton has been methodical, so far concentrating solely on foreign crises and the economy.

The biggest surprise, perhaps, has been her success in winning at least a degree of bilateral support for her emergency economic measures on Capitol Hill. It seems there are some Republican gentlemen who have a soft spot for Mrs Clinton, whatever the likes of Fox News and some of their constituents hiss about her.

Thus, her fiscal stimulus programme sped through Congress. At $960bn, it contained far more infrastructure spending than even Mr Obama was proposing. And when he said she should agree to Republican demands for tax cuts to be included, she stood firmly against any such compromise. The gamble paid off.

Moreover, she has been gutsy in dealing with Wall Street banks. The new programme her administration unveiled to help them dump toxic assets had several conditions with a common message: you thought you ran this country but no longer. Even Goldman Sachs may soon be broken up. True, Robert Rubin resigned as her economics adviser but she weathered that tempest well.

On the international stage, the President has milked all her advantages to the full, mostly her not being George Bush. But she has not been an easy partner for America's allies either, agreeing the unilateralism of the Bush era is over but still reminding them who is boss in this world. As for that stunt the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez played in Trinidad. His gift – that book about US imperialism – is probably still lying on the summit chamber floor.

Mr Obama's surprise visit to Tehran finally got Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the table, though Mrs Clinton pointing cruise missiles in the Iranian President's direction probably helped. If Israel is smirking, it shouldn't. President Clinton has made no secret of her intention to push harder than ever for peace under a two-state solution.

Bill's return to the White House grounds was always going to throw up some dust. At foreign summits, he is clearly a liability and should be left at home (never mind if he and Carla Bruni did make a compelling couple dancing in Strasbourg). And Republicans are unlikely to desist in their probe of Mr Clinton's business connections with certain South American countries seeking free trade agreements with Washington.

Some on the conservative wing of her party say that Mrs Clinton was wrong to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Bush officials who authorised torture. On that front, at least, perhaps she should have insisted that the country look forward instead of backwards.

President John McCain

The most popular politician in America today is a McCain, but it is not the President – his problems, after all, are so many and varied – but his 97-year-old mother Roberta. Twice now, she has emerged from her granny flat at the White House to clear up some verbal dog's dinner her son has committed just hours before.

Mr McCain was perhaps most buoyant in the wake of the recent summit meetings across the Atlantic. He bonded instantly with Prince Philip and was grateful that other European leaders joined him in persuading Gordon Brown that tax cuts, not stimulus spending, offered the best way out of the economic crisis. German headline writers are still convinced the special relationship is now with Berlin, not London.

But President McCain's press office was tearing its hair out after the Nato meeting when he made his now famous remarks about Russia and the expansion of Nato. It would have helped if he had not forgotten that his counterpart's name in Moscow isn't Putin any more but Medvedev (some think Mr McCain was being deliberately tricky, suggesting that it is the former who still has pulls the levers at the Kremlin).

The real problems usually start when reporters ask him about Vice-President Sarah Palin. This seems to trigger something bad inside the President, who instantly grows red and begins to twitch. It is no secret that since his brief brush with pneumonia in January (the inauguration was so cold), there have been not one but two competing courts inside the White House and there is no love lost.

It has been this friction that has persuaded President McCain largely to turn his back on conservatives. Their loyalty is with Mrs Palin. He has instead steered a moderate course, at least in social policy matters. In this way, he has been the maverick, independent John McCain that many voters felt drawn to last year. He has condemned torture and even invited gay parents and their children to his wife Cindy's birthday banquet on the South Lawn next month. But worst of all have been his continuing admissions that the economic crisis is mostly beyond him intellectually. He advocates a mostly supply-side solution to the problem, with massive tax cuts for corporations and tax relief for consumers, but stumbles when asked to describe precisely how his Treasury Secretary, Meg Whitman, is trying to prop up the big banks with her Toxic Relief Inside Financial Legacy Entities (TRIFLE) programme.

Moreover, even as his 100th day approaches, gridlock persists on Capitol Hill over his stimulus plan, which contains far too little in terms of actual government spending for the Democrat majority to accept. Even many Republicans, certainly those in the conservative wing, remain reluctant to support the package. His public statements of uncertainty, combined with the lack of progress in implementing the package, have been blamed for the stock market's relentless and continuing plunge. Even this week, the Dow Jones industrial average was dipping below 6,000 points.

With so many problems at home, it is hardly a surprise that President McCain has run so hard on foreign policy with his startling deployment of an additional 45,000 troops to Afghanistan and his call on Nato to begin operations in several western provinces of Pakistan before the autumn. His television stunt on Easter Sunday, outside what was apparently once an al-Qa'ida cave somewhere on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, to declare "Mission Begun" was generally well received in cities across America – if not in Islamabad.

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