By Marc Pitzke in New York
Barack Obama had everything perfectly choreographed for Wednesday, his 100th day in office. First he would travel to St. Louis for a town hall meeting, where he could be fairly sure of a glowing reception; then he would return to Washington for a televised press conference. His team had provided the media with insider anecdotes and graced a few correspondents with private background interviews.
US President Barack Obama: A perfectly choreographed first 100 days
Nevertheless, an unplanned announcement sideswiped the administration from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue: Senator Arlen Specter said on Tuesday that he was switching parties. The moderate Republican will become a Democrat, ostensibly because he thinks the 2010 mid-term election is his to lose if he remains in the Republican Party. (Polls suggest a Republican can't win his Senate seat in Pennsylvania; and he would also face a challenge from inside the Republican Party.) Obama said he was "thrilled," and his spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said the president knew nothing in advance about the defection.
Specter's move is important. It will make him the 59th Democrat in the Senate and bring the Democrats one vote closer to a filibuster-proof majority. With 60 senators -- a number the Democrats will probably achieve when Al Franken of Minnesota officially takes his seat -- the Democrats will have the power to override any Republican efforts to block legislation by "filibustering," or giving long speeches on the Senate floor.
These days, the US media likes to report on an "Obama revolution," a long-term political shift comparable to the "Reagan revolution" of the early 1980s. A more pleasant set of headlines for the president's 100th day would be hard to imagine.
Most Popular President in Decades
In spite of know-it-alls on the right, and in spite all the problems he faces, Obama seems to enjoy more support from the US public than any president in generations. The latest polls from the Washington Post and ABC News show an approval rating of 69 percent, which no US leader since Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 has enjoyed during his first 100 days.
Polls also show a majority of US citizens for the first time since 2004 claiming the nation is on the right path. "Obama has used his first 100 days to raise the mood of the people and raise hopes of a brighter future," one pollster said to the Associated Press, which arrived at similar statistics.
He's shown outrage, as he did during the bonus scandals on Wall Street. He's tried to spread calm, as he did when he recently addressed the financial crisis. He shows thoughtfulness, equanimity, long-term thinking -- former secretary of labor Robert Reich has called him "the serene center of the cyclone." At the same time, during speeches, he rarely departs from his Teleprompter, and when it runs too fast he's been known to stop and ask the operators to "rewind."
He uses the power of images, which made him a superstar during the presidential campaign. He gave the first televised interview of his term to al-Arabiya, the Islamic broadcaster, and spoke directly to Iranian citizens via YouTube. He opened new relations with Cuba -- to the delight of hardliners in Miami, no less. He made the White House Web site interactive -- "Open for Questions."
The White House has also choreographed a couple of photo essays, including a public-domain series of 300 pictures online (selected above) and a more independent photo essay in Time, which nevertheless shows a pure presidential idyll: Obama on a sofa, Obama's polished shoes at the entrance to an Istanbul mosque, Obama's plate with crackers and cheese, next to a folder marked "Classified."
Image Isn't Everything
The scenes all suggest that Obama has the rudder of state firmly in hand, and that he's comfortable with the job. "He became presidential almost immediately," said American University professor James Thurber, a presidential historian. "Physically as well as rhetorically he transformed himself."
Since his first day, Obama has parried fresh crises and fulfilled countless election promises. It's an instant American revolution: Bailouts for banks, auto companies and the real estate market; a huge stimulus package; new rules for Wall Street. An announced closure for the prison at Guantanamo Bay. A new definition of the war on terror, including a major rearrangement of troops. A liberalization of funds for stem-cell research. The "National Service Bill," which has hardly been discussed outside the US but will bring millions of Americans willingly into government service. A redistribution of the tax burden. In less than 15 weeks Obama has annulled decades of Republican ideology.
All political and economic axioms were flushed away by the financial crisis. Obama is creating new rules as he governs -- and he's using the new vacuum in government ideology to keep his long-term agenda in sight. His next big initiative, a reform of the nation's health-care industry in the context of a 35-year-old budget law, has grown easier to achieve since Specter's defection on Tuesday.
But of course the truth is somewhat more complicated, and image, of course, is not everything.
Worms in the Apple
It's apparent from a closer analysis of the polls that many of Obama's initiatives are less well-loved than the man himself. This applies above all to government intervention in the economy and the banking sector. The real results of his initiatives will take some time to manifest themselves, but the citizens are growing restless. Many don't understand -- in spite of Obama's explanations -- why so many financial institutions responsible for the mess on Wall Street need to be sheltered by the government. The banks show no sign of comprehending the problem, and the credit markets still haven't loosened.
Obama's staff is also not quite so popular. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has recovered from a few early false steps, but he remains an uncertain figure -- like Obama's top economic advisor Larry Summers, the personification of pessimism.
The huge national debts piled up by Obama's bailout and stimulus measures have also mobilized the Republicans. In resisting these big initiatives they see a way to rescue themselves from the political wilderness. As self-appointed voices of the people they've begun to nag the president -- they polemicize against taxes and wreck the illusion of cross-party harmony that accompanied his inauguration. Polls show the same problem: If 93 percent of Democrats support Obama's policies, only 36 percent of Republicans do. Obama polarizes.
Nevertheless, he's popular around the world. Afghanistan and the Middle East are still crisis spots, and Pakistan is starting to boil. In the latest debates over torture memos within the CIA, Obama has wavered from his clear moral line. Organizations like Human Rights Watch have come out against his position. A terror expert at Human Rights Watch named Joanne Mariner calls the recent dispute "a huge disappointment."
These doubts may, of course, be parried as elegantly as ever by Obama during his 100-day press conference. All the main TV broadcasters will carry it live from the East Wing -- except for one, Fox, which belongs to the conservative (and Australia-born) US media czar Rupert Murdoch. Instead they'll run a regularly scheduled episode of a crime drama -- called "Lie to Me."
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