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First 100 days: Obama uses popularity as power

WASHINGTON — On the last Friday in March, President Barack Obama summoned leaders of the banking industry to the White House, where they gathered around a mahogany table in the State Dining Room, site of many a feast. On this day there was not a piece of fruit nor can of soda in sight. At each place was a glass of water. No ice. No refills.

The president's message was as hard and crusty as a slab of day-old bread. He urged the businessmen to view corporate excess through the eyes of Americans who are belt-tightening their way through the recession. Obama mentioned the carpet stains in the Oval Office, to make a frugal comparison with $1 million executive suites decorated with $8,000 trash cans.

The bankers protested, citing the specialization of their field and the need to pay handsomely to avoid a brain drain. Obama cut them off: "Be careful how you make those statements, gentlemen. The public isn't buying that. My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks."

Direct, assertive and utterly self-assured, Obama has used his broad popularity, a driving ambition and sweeping agenda to move America in a wholly new direction.

Just shy of 100 days in office, he has ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison and a troop withdrawal from Iraq, made it easier for women to sue for job discrimination, reversed a ban on stem cell research, extended health care to millions of children, ousted the head of General Motors, reached out to the Muslim world, moved to ease tensions with Cuba, traveled to Europe and Latin America, and set aside huge tracts of wilderness for federal protection.

More broadly, Obama has seized on the worst economic crisis since the 1930s — exploiting it, critics say — and set out to reshape major aspects of everyday life: the price we pay to see a doctor, the size of our children's classrooms, the fuel we put in our cars.

If Obama's history-making campaign offered hope, the Obama administration has delivered audacity; his vision of an activist government has been so vast, Washington now guarantees not only savings accounts but bad brakes on a Buick.

"You can carp and gripe," said Allan Lichtman, a historian at Washington's American University. "But you really have to go back as far as Franklin Roosevelt for this much coming out of a newly elected president."

Whether dealing with imperious bankers or Somali pirates, Obama as chief executive looks a lot like Obama the candidate: the calmest one at the table, ribbing stressed-out aides and sipping bottled water as his lieutenants guzzle caffeine.

Not that his performance was always so smooth.

After a quick start, a series of controversies slowed hiring for the administration, leaving hundreds of desks vacant and phones unanswered; it took three tries to land a Commerce Department secretary. The Treasury Department's Timothy Geithner, the point man on the economy, relied on holdovers from the Bush administration to shape Obama's policies, and botched his debut so badly that he helped send financial markets off a cliff.

• • •

On Jan. 21, the first full day of the Obama administration, the president stepped into the Oval Office at 8:35 a.m. He spent the first 10 minutes alone, reading a private note that former President George W. Bush had left behind: "To: .44, From: .43." Then, wearing a starched white shirt, sky-blue tie and no jacket — his would be a less formal White House — he went to work behind Bush's old desk.

Obama moved quickly to assert himself and begin reordering policies at home and abroad. The media, always a bit fawning over a new chief executive, breathlessly chronicled his every move.

Republicans were less impressed.

Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent had been to White House events before, but never one like Obama's Super Bowl bash. There was a Wii in the East Wing and kids running all over. The president passed up the four cushy chairs at the front of the home theater to join the crowd in the cheap seats. If Obama couldn't get GOP leaders to back his stimulus package, or much else, perhaps he could win over a few of their members.

Early on, the rank and file seemed to appreciate the effort. When Obama went to Capitol Hill to sell his $800 billion economic rescue bill, House Republicans gave him two standing ovations, even though their leader, John Boehner of Ohio, had just urged them to vote against it, citing, among other things, the GOP's lack of input.

"It's always good to communicate with the president of the United States," Rep. Wally Herger, a California Republican, remarked afterward. "That doesn't mean we're going to support his plan."

In the end, angry over the size and scope of the package, not a single Republican House member did.

But Obama continued his courtship, opening the White House for Wednesday night cocktails and hosting a state dinner that featured the nation's governors dancing hands on hips in a bipartisan conga line. To White House strategists, the measure of success was not winning GOP votes but showing the country that, after all the animosity of the Bush years, Obama was at least trying.

• • •

Two weeks into Obama's presidency he faced his first significant setback.

Tom Daschle was his pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services and, more importantly, to shepherd Obama's ambitious health care plan through Congress. But Daschle's image was being tarred by stories about his chauffeured limousine and lucrative ties to the health care industry.

After waking up to a stinging New York Times editorial, Daschle decided to withdraw; the president let him go. That night, Obama proceeded with five network TV interviews scheduled to peddle his stimulus bill. Instead, he delivered a five-pronged apology. "I screwed up," he said.

The Daschle debacle established a pattern. Facing trouble, Obama would step forward, hit the road and try to change the subject. Messes made in Washington were best cleaned up outside Washington, by a president whose personal popularity was seemingly unsullied by any mistakes he made.

The president, already feeling caged in the White House, was eager to escape. He and his aides realized their best sales tactic was putting the president directly in front of the American people. He touched down in Elkhart, Ind., where unemployment had tripled in the past year; in Fort Myers, where an adoring crowd chanted his name; and in Peoria, Ill., where he announced with dramatic flair that the Senate had just passed the stimulus bill.

In all, Obama took more trips outside Washington in his first month than any of his five immediate predecessors.

• • •

Timothy Geithner was standing before reporters in the gilded Cash Room of the Treasury Department. It was a moment Obama had built up, suggesting that the youthful Cabinet secretary would spell out a plan to keep people in their homes and fix the nation's path to economic recovery.

But rather than leading a cavalry charge, Geithner looked more like a nervous delivery boy worried he had the wrong order. The Dow tumbled 382 points.

But if Geithner took a pounding, it was Obama who deserved much of the blame. He had promised far more than the Treasury secretary and his understaffed department could possibly provide.

Overnight, Geithner became a butt of jokes. The laughter turned to fury weeks later when news broke of the $165 million executive payout at American International Group, or AIG, which received a massive federal bailout.

Obama once more set out to tidy the mess, launching a weeklong media blitz that seemed to target sports fans, news junkies, insomniacs and others. There he was on ESPN, picking seeds in the men's college basketball tournament; on 60 Minutes, saying yes, he too was outraged by AIG; on Jay Leno's couch, where he lauded Geithner as "a calm and steady guy."

Even friends of the White House started asking whether Obama was becoming overexposed. Was it possible the country might tire of someone as unique as its first black president?

From the start, warp speed was the resting heart rate at the White House, grinding people down. Each day seemed like a week, each week seemed like a month.

Halfway to the 100-day mark, Obama had already signed into law seven major pieces of legislation, including the biggest spending bill in American history. By comparison, George W. Bush had signed one bill, commemorating Ronald Reagan's 90th birthday.

Still, Obama pushed ahead. The economic crisis, he said, left no choice.

• • •

Obama's White House quickly assumed the persona of its chief tenant: on point, no-nonsense, without a lot of wasted time or effort.

Meetings start on time and stay on topic. Participation is limited to those who have a reason to show. When he's not happy, Obama doesn't holler or flap his arms; disapproval is meted out in a clipped tone.

A typical presidential day begins with a 7 a.m. workout on the third-floor gym, followed by breakfast with Obama's daughters, Sasha and Malia, policy briefings in the Oval Office, then tightly spaced meetings or public appearances. For lunch, he orders whatever he fancies, often cheeseburgers and waffle fries. On Fridays, he lunches with Vice President Joe Biden.

While Obama eats dinner, staffers prepare the night's reading, which is dispatched to the residential quarters in color-coded folders. He sometimes pores over them until after midnight, long past Bush's strict 10 p.m. bedtime.

Obama also tries to stay connected with people by reading 10 letters a day — selected from more than 250,000 he gets each week — from Americans sharing their hopes, sorrows and things that keep them awake nights.

• • •

The first 100 days of a presidency have been a milestone since the epic days of Roosevelt's New Deal. The opening of Obama's administration has answered at least one question that hung over his improbable White House bid: whether a freshman senator, still shy of his 50th birthday and just a few years removed from the Illinois statehouse, was prepared to face the responsibility and wield the awesome powers of the presidency.

It will take much longer to determine whether Obama's actions were wise or successful. But from the start, he took the reins, and pulled hard.

This article was based on dozens of interviews conducted with White House officials; outside advisers to the administration; members of Congress; lobbyists; presidential scholars; and business, entertainment and other executives who have interacted with the president or key figures in his administration.

Key actions

DAY 3 Signs order to close Guantanamo Bay DAY 10 Signs bill making it easier for employees to sue for work/pay discrimination. DAY 16 Extends health coverage to 4 million uninsured children. DAY 25 House and Senate pass his economic stimulus bill. DAY 29 Approves sending 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. DAY 39 Sets Aug. 31, 2010, as end of U.S. combat mission in Iraq. DAY 47 Says he is open to approaching moderate Taliban in Afghanistan. DAY 49 Lifts restrictions on use of federal money for stem cell research. DAY 56 Calls $165 million in AIG bonuses "an outrage." DAY 60 Tells Iran he wants to end differences between the two countries. DAY 69 Forces out GM Chairman Rick Wagoner. DAY 74 Calls for a world without nuclear weapons during a speech in Prague, Czech Republic. DAY 77 Tells Turkish parliament America is "not at war with Islam." DAY 84 Lifts restrictions on Cuban Americans' visits to the island; drops limits on remittances.

Key actions

Day 3: Signs order to close Guantanamo Bay.

Day 10: Signs bill making it easier for employees to sue for work/pay discrimination.

Day 16: Extends health coverage to 4 million uninsured children.

Day 25: House and Senate pass his economic stimulus bill.

Day 29: Approves sending 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

Day 39: Sets Aug. 31, 2010, as end of U.S. combat mission in Iraq.

Day 47: Says he is open to approaching moderate Taliban in Afghanistan.

Day 49: Lifts restrictions on use of federal money for stem cell research.

Day 56: Calls $165 million in AIG bonuses "an outrage."

Day 60: Tells Iran he wants to end differences between the two countries.

Day 69: Forces out GM Chairman Rick Wagoner.

Day 74: Calls for a world without nuclear weapons during a speech in Prague, Czech Republic.

Day 77: Tells Turkish parliament America is "not at war with Islam."

Day 84: Lifts restrictions on Cuban-Americans' visits to the island; drops limits on remittances.

First 100 days: Obama uses popularity as power 04/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 9:40pm]
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