Now president, Obama plans urgent first steps

He plans to shore up America’s stumbling economy and address pressing issues on the international front.

Mark Wilson/AP
The moment: Barack Obama laid his hand on the Lincoln Bible as Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath. Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle, held the Bible as his daughters watched.

President Obama is expected to use executive orders and the bully pulpit in his first days in office to mark a symbolic break from the policies of the past eight years.

In taking the oath of office Tuesday, the 44th president of the United States, the first African-American to lead the country, used that pulpit to rally the citizenry to stand with him, calling for a “new era of responsibility” in the “midst of the crisis.” Noting the US is at war and the economy badly weakened, Mr. Obama called on Americans to “seize gladly” the duties before the nation during “this winter of our hardship.”

“Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new,” he said, as the sun shone and a chilly wind blew across the millions of people packing the Mall before him. “But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.”

Obama will begin his term with aggressive measures to shore up America’s stumbling economy, urging Congress to act quickly on what he calls “a bold, aggressive investment and recovery package,” his aides say. At the same time, he’ll call on banks that took federal bailout money to be more accountable and to start lending money more freely.

The new president will also move on the international front, ordering military leaders to prepare for a speedy withdrawal from Iraq and begin shutting down the detention center holding terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Aides say he will also make clear that working for peace in the Middle East will be a top priority.

“The symbolism of first acts is very important, and President Obama is fully aware of that,” says Gordon Smith of the Walker Institute for International and Area Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. “He’s signaling he’s very much concerned about his foreign-policy agenda as well as the financial crisis that’s confronting the United States. And in fact, he’s made it clear that addressing the financial crisis is also going to be an international endeavor that’s going to require cooperation from the world.”

Obama enjoys good will abroad, but by moving fast to close Guantánamo, analysts say, he can solidify that and instill confidence in his foreign-policy credentials.

“Guantánamo ... has become such a symbol of the failed policies of the Bush administration, and it undercuts and undermines our own efforts at stopping terrorism,” says Dr. Smith. “It will be important for him to demonstrate to skeptics at home and abroad that he’s capable of ... taking bold moves when necessary.”

In his inaugural address, Obama affirmed that traditional values are vital to his foreign policy. US military power was founded as much on “sturdy alliances and enduring convictions” as on “missiles and tanks” – and that earlier generations understood as much when they faced down fascism and communism, he said.

“They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please,” he said. “Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

On the domestic front, Obama called for a shift away from politics as usual, saying “the ground has shifted.” “Stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply,” he said. “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.”

In moving quickly on his agenda, Obama is taking lessons from past administrations in a bid to prevent early missteps, say presidential scholars. President Bill Clinton, who made reforming the healthcare system the cornerstone of his election campaign, took almost a year to present a plan to Congress.

During that time, the public lost interest and he lost political capital with his controversial move to allow gays to serve in the military under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Obama is expected to make early use of executive orders to lift the ban on federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research and for family planning agencies abroad. He’s’s also expected to tighten ethics rules for people entering and exiting government.

“All this implies that Obama has been influenced by Clinton’s fate,” says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. “He’s been lining up support as much as possible before the inauguration.... The public’s already well-briefed on the economic package.”

Obama appears to be modeling his first days after those of President Franklin Roosevelt, who also had an economic crisis to focus his agenda. Like Roosevelt, Obama is exuding confidence even as he prepares the public for the likelihood that the economy could get worse before it gets better.

“It’s clear Obama is going to work fast to get credit loosened, some oversight of the banks, and help for people in foreclosure,” says political scientist Bert Rockman at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. “The question is how fast he’ll be able to get a bill through Congress.”

Obama, unlike Roosevelt, has the luxury of a bit more time. FDR was inaugurated March 4, 1933, amid a financial panic. On his first day in office he closed all banks indefinitely, declaring it a “holiday” to give his administration time to quell the panic. With that move, he gained the confidence of Congress, which within 100 days enacted landmark legislation that formed the bedrock of the New Deal.

“The perception now is also that we’re in such crisis that we have to move rapidly,” says Dr. Buchanan. “Obama is similarly pragmatic, but FDR was more of an experimentalist. He didn’t have the kind of overarching theory that Obama does.”

Obama will have a less compliant Congress than Roosevelt did. Democratic leaders in both houses have already signaled disagreement with parts of Obama’s stimulus proposal, the tax cuts in particular. But they and others say they hope to get a bill passed within six weeks.

“The initial program is so potentially wise in that it’s a down payment on all the things we should care about – education, energy, environment, and healthcare – that he’s folded into that stimulus package by broadening the definition of infrastructure,” says Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. Moving from legislative action to economic recovery is a process he likens to building a house. “The framework is going to go up very quickly, but the plumbing and the heating and everything else that it takes to build a house take forever. People are going to have to be patient.”

The new administration also needs to consider how much of Obama’s larger agenda, like healthcare reform, to include in the new president’s first proposals. Problems can arise from overreaching, says Mr. Hess. “The more things you try to weave into a solution, the more politically complicated it gets and the more issues it raises,” he says.

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