Obama's opening week sets a new tone

Sunday, January 25, 2009 | 5:57 p.m. CST

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's first week in power was a whirl of activity, but the orders and pronouncements flowing from the White House had little to do with the central mission of his presidency: overhauling health care, weaning the nation from foreign oil and fixing the economy.

Obama's early moves carried huge symbolic value. On his first full day he called in top military advisers and pushed them for a faster timetable for withdrawing combat troops from Iraq. He announced that he would close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. He also rolled out new policies meant to curb the power of lobbyists.

But those actions had another purpose: clearing some issues off the table for the time being so that Obama can turn his attention to thornier projects, such as health care, that have confounded past presidents. "He is definitely buying time and space," said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster.

Obama's initial moves have a certain political utility. Everything he did tracked campaign promises to break sharply from the Bush administration.

And he helped to defuse emotionally charged issues, even if the practical effects won't be felt right away, if at all. Guantanamo, for example, might not be shuttered for a year while the Obama administration decides the fate of its approximately 250 inmates. Obama's timetable for an Iraq drawdown calls for all combat troops to be removed by mid-2010.

Obama is signaling through these moves that he is making a big change in policy, even if the change will take awhile to take effect. He is saying: "It isn't going to happen at this instant moment. But it's not something that I'm sidestepping or re-evaluating now that I'm commander in chief," Hart said.

What is more, Obama's actions set a new tone that the rest of the world can't help but notice.

"An order from the White House sends an immediate message," said the Rev. Richard L. Killmer, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

On Thursday, Obama announced he was banning interrogation techniques that opponents described as torture. "Messages have real, concrete effects. Just by issuing one, he can re-establish relations that we have with a large part of the world," Killmer said.

Although he cast his new ethics rules as the strictest ever, Obama has left wiggle room for lobbyists he feels he can't do without. On Wednesday, he announced a new policy barring lobbyists joining the government from working on issues for two years that were the focus of their advocacy work. But there are exceptions. The president's choice for a top Pentagon job, William J. Lynn, was a registered lobbyist for the defense contractor Raytheon Co. until last year.

The biggest tests for Obama are not what he can accomplish by executive fiat. He has staked his presidency on building the political consensus needed for dramatic swings in policy.

On health care, Obama has a narrow window to create a system that would reduce costs while extending coverage to more people. The political calendar requires him to act this year. If he lets the debate bleed into 2010, the effort could be entangled in the mid-term congressional elections, a scenario he wants to avoid.

Rep. Pete Stark, a Northern California Democrat and proponent of a health care overhaul, said the clock is a worry. Interest groups who favor the status quo will find it "easier to frustrate our efforts in an election year," Stark said. "So, there's a real urgency to get this done before Halloween, by the very latest."

Aides said Obama is preparing a full-throated push on health care, with former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle heading the effort as secretary of Health and Human Services.

He has begun meeting with key lawmakers and interest groups close to the health care debate.

The president also is girding to pass major new energy and environmental policies this year.

Congressional leaders expect Obama to push an energy bill in the spring, which probably will include more spending on alternative energy development, more upgrades to nation's electric grid and a national mandate for renewable energy use.

On a separate track, Obama probably will press for legislation aimed at controlling global warming. He wants a so-called cap-and-trade system that would set a limit on carbon emissions and dole out permits for emitters.

Reviving the economy is a central preoccupation. Changing White House protocol, Obama has asked for a regular morning briefing on the state of the economy in the Oval Office along with the national security briefing the president gets every day.

The gesture suggests that Obama has elevated the economy to an issue on a par with the nation's defense.

By next month, Obama hopes to have taken his first step toward lifting the country out of recession. He has set a goal of mid-February for passage of his $800 billion stimulus plan.

Political conditions for Obama are optimum. People like him and want him to be bold. A Washington Post/ABC News survey conducted Jan. 13 through Jan. 16 asked if people believed Obama's mandate was to achieve "major" new social and economic programs or merely small policy changes. A sizable 71 percent of respondents wanted him to take on major programs; only 22 percent wanted small policy changes.

Still, at some point Obama will need to show concrete progress.

"If he doesn't succeed within a year of making real progress or getting legislation that will set us visibly on the road toward an increase in clean energy and pointing to stability in the financial sector, there will be disillusion," said Robert Himmelberg, a history professor at Fordham University.

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