AMBITION AND AUDACITY
Obama begins leading America in a new direction
He closes in on 100 days as president, having handled the highs and lows with a sense of urgency and his characteristic calmness.
President Obama looks out a window before entering the East Room of the White House to open the Fiscal Responsibility Summit. (Tribune photo by Zbigniew Bzdak / February 23, 2009)
The president's message was hard and crusty as a slab of day-old bread.
He urged the bankers 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 suites decorated with $8,000 trash cans.
The corporate chieftains 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 a 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 military prison and a troop withdrawal from Iraq; made it easier for women to sue for job discrimination; eased a ban on stem cell research; extended healthcare coverage to millions of children; ousted the head of General Motors; reached out to the Muslim world; moved to ease tensions with Cuba; traveled to Canada, Europe, Turkey 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 nation's first black president has delivered audacity; his vision of an activist government has been so vast, Washington now guarantees not only savings accounts but 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 secretary. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. 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 markets off a cliff.
For a man who considers himself a good listener, Obama sometimes appeared tone-deaf, underestimating public disgust with a would-be healthcare czar who rode around Washington in a chauffeured Cadillac and failed to pay taxes on the perk. He was slow to detect the populist backlash brewing when tens of millions in taxpayer-funded bonuses went to executives who helped tank the economy.
At times, the nation's orator in chief struggled to find the right tone -- sometimes too grim, sometimes too glib -- when talking to a country that needed to hear both hard truths and gentle reassurance. (Last week, Obama gave a speech touting economic improvement the same day lousy consumer spending figures came out.)
When Obama's agenda threatened to hit a wall inside the Washington Beltway, he took to the road -- reporters in tow -- to soak up support from friendly, campaign-style crowds.
But more important than personal adulation was something else Americans seemed willing to give their young president, something apparent in robust poll numbers and a recognition that things weren't going to improve overnight: The country was willing to be patient.
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 -- Obama went to work behind Bush's old desk.
The transfer of power in Washington can be jarring. But mentally, Obama had been easing into the presidency for some time, especially since mid-September, when Lehman Bros. collapsed in the largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history. The economy was in free-fall. Republican John McCain was dithering over whether to participate in the first presidential debate. And the country had long since stopped looking to Bush for answers. (In the final days of the campaign, when victory seemed assured, Obama would scan the bleak headlines and privately joke that he could still throw the race.)
Maybe it was that head start, or his famous unflappability, but as president, 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 Obama's every move. He walked toward his Marine One helicopter with "a manifestly brisk stride," a wire service wrote, and shunned a raincoat and umbrella as though impervious to rain.
Republicans were a harder sell.
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 circulated with plates of brownies and warm cookies. When Dent's son and a friend needed to use the bathroom, they asked the guy with the cookies for directions. "How should I know?" Obama joked. "I've only been here 10 days."
Seventy-five guests from the two major parties, folks who work side by side on Capitol Hill but don't seem to much like each other, mingled, drank beer, ate hot dogs and watched the Pittsburgh Steelers win a rare Super Bowl thriller. The president passed up the four cushy chairs at the front of the home theater to join the crowd in the cheap seats.
Surely it was a reach to think that warm cookies and cold beer would make Republicans any more willing to swallow the end of a conservative era. But 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 the Hill to sell his $800-billion economic rescue bill, House Republicans gave him two standing ovations, even though their leader, John A. 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 Chico 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.
"I'll keep hugging you, you keep hitting me. Doesn't bother me none," said Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago congressman and political brawler, whom Obama hired as White House chief of staff. "If I keep hugging and you keep hitting, it's not my fault. Guess who gets blamed?"
Two weeks into Obama's presidency, he faced his first significant setback.
Former Sen. Tom Daschle was his pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services and, more important, to shepherd Obama's ambitious healthcare plan through Congress. But Daschle's image was being tarred by stories about his chauffeured limousine and lucrative ties to the healthcare industry.
Obama and his aides were usually happy to ignore the conventional Beltway wisdom. In this case, though, they lapsed into typical Washington-think: If Daschle had the votes to prevail on Capitol Hill, where the ex-senator remained popular with former colleagues, then surely the controversy wasn't that big a deal.
What they didn't count on was the angry reaction of the American people. The whole thing reeked of the kind of clubby back-scratching that Obama, as a candidate, had vowed to end.
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 that were scheduled to peddle his stimulus plan. Instead, he delivered a five-pronged apology. "I screwed up," he said.
The morning after Obama's serial mea culpa, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs ended his daily staff meeting with a declaration: "When the president said, 'I screwed up' last night, that officially ended our experiment with sipping from the waters of the Potomac."
The Daschle debacle produced the worst day of Obama's young administration but 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.
But there was something else bothering Gibbs and others in the administration. The Washington narrative was a roller coaster of conflicting conclusions: One day Obama's stimulus package was destined to pass, the next it was doomed to fail. Yet polling and focus groups found solid support across the country.
The president, already feeling caged in the White House, was eager to escape. Obama and his aides realized that their best sales tactic was to put the president directly in front of the American people. He touched down in Elkhart, Ind., where unemployment had tripled in the last year; in Fort Myers, Fla., 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. Obama took more trips outside Washington in his first month than any of his five immediate predecessors.
The point, as Gibbs told reporters on Air Force One en route to Elkhart, "is not explaining to Indiana what's going on in Washington. This is taking Washington to show them what's going on in Indiana and all over the country, and why people are hurting."
Timothy Geithner was standing before a crowd of 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.
Badly placed teleprompters made matters worse; as Geithner spoke, he moved his head back and forth like an oscillating fan, speaking of high concepts but providing little of the substance Wall Street wanted. Reporters began pecking out dispatches on their BlackBerrys, using words like "disaster." 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.
After Geithner, Daschle and others were tripped up by tax problems, the White House forced appointees to undergo a more vigorous scrubbing; it was almost obsessive, some complained, practically forcing appointees to account for the spare change in their pockets. Some stepped aside rather than face a trial by nitpicking.
The day of Geithner's appearance, his chief speechwriter was still awaiting FBI clearance. The woman assigned to wrangle reporters didn't know her way around the building; it was her first day on the job.
Overnight, Geithner became a butt of jokes: home alone at Treasury. A deer in the headlights. 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. The bonuses were contractually obligated but, fairly or not, Geithner got much of the blame.
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, making his picks 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."
This time, however, even friends of the White House started asking whether Obama was becoming overexposed. He laughed on "60 Minutes" during a discussion of the failing auto industry. Was he punch-drunk? He apologized after cracking wise about the Special Olympics on Leno's show. Was he diminishing the presidency by appearing on a late-night talk show?
Administration insiders, fingers firmly on the pulse of opinion polls, were convinced that the nation's trauma and Obama's inordinate skill offered an exception to the usual rules of political engagement.
"If these were ordinary times, I'd be more concerned than I am during what is, for most people, a crisis," said Jim Margolis, a campaign advisor who remains close to the White House. "At this moment, Americans need to be able to connect to their president, to see that he understands what they are going through and that he is moving us toward a solution."
From the start, warp speed was the resting heart rate at the White House, grinding people down. Just about everyone had at least one head cold the first month. A fatigued national security aide dozed off during an afternoon briefing.
Each day seemed like a week; each week seemed like a month. Take Week Six: Obama hosted the conga-dancing governors on Sunday night, then Monday morning served muffins and a lecture on his stimulus bill. On Tuesday, he delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress, calling for expensive energy, education and healthcare programs that would produce an ocean of red ink. On Wednesday, news leaked that the first family was closing in on a puppy. On Thursday, Obama rolled out his $3.5-trillion budget. On Friday, surrounded by troops at Camp Lejeune, N.C., he announced his plan to wind down the war in Iraq.
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.
"Never allow a good crisis to go to waste," Emanuel said. "It's an opportunity to do what the political system and the inertia of the system have prevented."
Many, including more than a few congressional Democrats, suggested that Obama was too ambitious and that the understaffed administration was proceeding too quickly. "It is hard to do everything that needs to be done," said Kent Conrad of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "You do have to prioritize."
Privately, Obama lamented the crush of events that required moving "from one thing to the other in a way that doesn't give him the kind of collected and thoughtful ability to respond that he'd like," said a friend who did not want to be identified discussing their private conversation. "It's really an array of challenges, any one of which you could spend all your time on."
Still, Obama pushed ahead. Not because "I feel like it, or because I'm a glutton for punishment," he told a group of business leaders. The economic crisis, he said, left no choice.
One cold January afternoon, Obama posed for pictures in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's elegant office, the two seated in matching yellow wing chairs by the fireplace, smiling. In a few days he would take the oath of office on a stage that work crews were constructing beneath her balcony window. A handful of aides sat across the room, idling as the shutters snapped. When it came time for business, Obama picked up his chair, hoisted it over his head and plunked it down amid the circle of staffers.
Presidents -- and those about to become president -- don't move furniture. But clearly Obama had not yet grasped the starchy protocols of a job that comes with two men assigned to hold his coat, dial his phone and carry his lip balm. That was evident again a short time later, when the president-elect casually strolled onto the balcony, only to be yanked back inside by Secret Service agents.
Assuming leadership of the free world obviously requires some adjustments. But if Obama was bemused by all the pampering, he had no problem seizing power. His White House quickly assumed the persona of its chief tenant: on point, no-nonsense, without a lot of wasted time or effort.
Meetings start promptly and stay on topic. Participation is limited to those who have a reason to show; there is little regard for apple-polishers, or people seeking face time with the president. When he's not happy, Obama doesn't holler or flap his arms; disapproval is meted out in a clipped tone. " 'This is what needs to happen. This is what hasn't happened. This is what in the next few days is going to happen,' " Gibbs quoted the president, likening him to a disappointed parent.
A typical presidential day begins with a 7 a.m. workout on the third-floor gym, followed by breakfast with daughters Sasha and Malia, policy briefings in the Oval Office and a series of tightly spaced meetings or public appearances. For lunch, he orders whatever he fancies: cheeseburgers and waffle fries more often than one might think. On Fridays, he lunches alone 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. (Red for classified items.) He sometimes pores over them until after midnight, long past Bush's strict 10 p.m. bedtime.
Like every president, Obama is largely walled off from the world beyond the iron gates of the White House. His BlackBerry is a lifeline to old friends, who still call him "Barack." (Unless they want to tease him. Then, following Michelle Obama's lead, it's "Mr. President.") The Chicago crowd has created a buddy system of rotating houseguests who spend weekends in Washington.
Obama also tries to stay connected 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 president requested the letters soon after taking office and sometimes shares them with aides, urging them to remember the true-life tales as they make policy. Obama answers about half.
"I think this is his greatest single concern," said David Axelrod, Obama's top political advisor. "Being kind of caught in the bubble and cut off from people."
The first 100 days of a presidency have been a milestone since the epic days of Roosevelt's New Deal. It is an arbitrary measure, and not always a good one. The Sept. 11 attacks that shaped Bush's presidency were months away when he reached the mark in 2001.
But the start of Obama's administration has answered 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.