We've got a long journey ahead, warns President

Obama's 100 days: With the economy still reeling, America's leader reflects on his first months in office, promising a bold rescue of the car industry – and paving the way for healthcare reform
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The Independent US

President Barack Obama yesterday touted his achievements of his symbolic first 100 days in office, but told his countrymen that far more had to be done to get America back on a path of lasting growth and prosperity.

"We've come a long way, and we can see the light on the horizon," Mr Obama told a campaign-style town hall meeting at a high school near St Louis, "but we've got a much longer journey ahead. I'm pleased with the progress we've made but I'm not satisfied."

Mr Obama left for the Midwest amid news that the economy had contracted by a worse-than-expected 6.1 per cent in the first quarter of 2009, only underlining the severity of the sharpest recession since the Second World War.

But hope is growing that the worst may be over – 100 days ago stocks plunged as Mr Obama was inaugurated. Yesterday, however, Wall Street surged, despite the grim GDP figures.

Energetic, mixing his trademark seriousness with slighter asides, the President exuded a matching confidence at the school in Arnold, Missouri, hours before a similar stock-taking exercise at a national press conference from the White House last night.

"We've begun to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off," he declared.

Mr Obama was hopeful of a survival deal for Chrysler that would be the first step in an unprecedented rescue of the battered US car industry.

At the same time, he promised major action by Congress by the end of the year on two key fronts: providing healthcare coverage for all Americans, and legislation to overhaul financial markets, to "reform the rules and regulations that allowed this crisis to happen in the first place".

The prospect of meeting those deadlines received a significant boost this week when Arlen Specter, the veteran former Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, defected to the Democrats.

He was given a hero's welcome at the White House yesterday by Mr Obama and the Vice-President Joe Biden.

"I think I can be of assistance to you, Mr President," said Mr Specter, who could soon provide Democrats with a 60-vote majority in the Senate, enough to overcome Republican filibusters.

The White House convened the town hall meeting and the press conference to set the seal on the most momentous first 100 days in office of any President since Franklin Roosevelt's debut three-quarters of a century ago, in the midst of an economic slump surpassing even that of today.

The time frame might be artificial but media coverage has been so overwhelming that Mr Obama and his advisers, who were initially dismissive of the occasion, decided that further resistance to the hoopla was pointless. Instead they have sought to turn the moment to their advantage – as well they might.

The general consensus is that while it is far too soon to deliver a final verdict on Mr Obama, his performance over these quasi-mythical 100 days has not disappointed.

Republicans might disagree, but the rest of the country is clearly willing to give the new President time to deal with a crisis not of his making.

Mr Obama came to office amid extraordinarily high expectations. He has responded with a burst of government activism unmatched since the 100-day special session of Congress between March and June 1933, during which 15 major bills were passed, laying the foundations of Mr Roosevelt's New Deal.

At home, Mr Obama has rammed a record $787bn (£535bn) stimulus package through Congress, set down the outlines of sweeping healthcare, education and energy policy reform, and acted to re-order the struggling US car industry.

Abroad, he has put a new imprint on American foreign policy, shifting the country's military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, giving new priority to diplomacy, and setting a new course with old US foes and rivals like Cuba and Iran – developing, as he put it yesterday, "a new face of American leadership in the world."

Some have been critical, and not only Republican advocates of small government, saying that he is trying to do too much, too quickly.

The White House responds that the sheer depth of American's problems present a unique opportunity.

"It's important not to let a crisis go to waste," Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said this month, encapsulating the administration's philosophy.

The public seems to agree. Mr Obama's political approval rating stands at a healthy 65 per cent and his personal popularity is even higher. For the first time in five years, a plurality of Americans believe the country is moving in the right direction.

A New York Times/CBS poll found that 72 per cent of Americans were optimistic about the next four years – a sea change from the pessimism that pervaded most of George Bush's second term.

Independent panel: The view from America

Some of them voted for the President, others weren't convinced. But after his first 100 days, how do our focus group think Barack Obama is doing?

Laura De Busk A 38-year-old housewife from Virginia and a Democrat

One phrase to sum up the 100 days: A fresh start.

Handling of economy? He's constantly been out in front of the American people explaining how this crisis happened and what he and his administration are doing to correct it. I think this is as much a crisis of confidence as it is the economy and anything he can do to make citizens confident in his leadership will help.

Change of mood in US? We've seen a dramatic turn in the percentage of people who feel like this country is now moving in the right direction.

Foreign policy? I've always been a supporter of Obama's approach in trying to find common ground even with countries we might classify as our adversaries. It remains to be seen whether he will reap the rewards or whether it will be a disaster.

View from abroad? He's proved that America wants to be a partner and listen to what other nations say.

Any criticisms? Mixed messages on the torture memos.

Favourite moment? Inauguration Day.

Joe McManus A 62-year-old lawyer from Washington DC and a Republican

One phrase to sum up the 100 days: The President's a real charmer.

Handling of economy? He is doing fairly well, given the enormous difficulties confronting the economy. Plainly he wants to do too much.

Change of mood in US? Most people see higher taxes and serious inflation coming, which may or may not be so. But the anxiety is there.

Foreign policy? He's entitled to try his own approach, and it certainly has charmed lots of folks. Who knows if this "making nice" will be rewarded or lead to disasters, but matters are patently worse in North Korea, Iran and Pakistan since the inauguration.

View from abroad? It may have improved, but if so, it is due more to the last President's departure rather than the new one's arrival. I don't see how all this self-flagellation can form a permanent basis for improvement

Any criticisms? The man is capable of amazing back flips

Favourite moment? His worst moment was pandering to the mob regarding AIG bonuses.

Mary Beth Ray A 48-year-old lawyer from Washington DC and a Republican

One phrase to sum up the 100 days: Encouraging

Handling of economy? I think Obama has been a bit slow and unsteady but he has also been very diligent. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner seems out of his depth, and the administration seems to be too quick to blame everything on the Bush team.

Change of mood in US? There's a great deal of optimism that didn't exist during the Bush years.

Foreign policy? I'm hopeful that his open attitude will be a positive

View from abroad? I just returned from a trip to Africa and already people overseas perceive a new day. Obama has made it clear that he wants to listen, not just boss around, and that is of great value, even if in reality some policies will remain the same.

Any criticisms? Not moving fast enough on the economy, and choosing Geithner.

Favourite moment? The new dog Bo dragging the President across the White House lawn.

Renee Van Vechten A 39-year-old political science professor from California and a Democrat

One phrase to sum up the 100 days: No one could have done better.

Handling of economy? Given the circumstances, Obama has managed brilliantly. He's taking calculated risks. I'm alarmed at the astronomical debt we're incurring, but aren't the alternatives worse?

Change of mood in US? The optimistic mood is more palpable than despair here in Southern California; there's common faith in the future and Obama's leadership.

Foreign policy? Success depends in part on foreign leaders' receptivity to Obama's approach. But so far diplomacy seems an improvement.

View from abroad? We finally have a president who understands implicitly that the US is one of many nations.

Any criticisms? "Going green" has been his mantra, but I'd like to see more aggressive action to get Americans to change their wasteful habits.

Favourite moment? Watching a sitting president on Jay Leno's late-night show.