x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

One hundred decisive days

Analysis Barack Obama has started his presidency with the same confidence and unflappable resolve that he displayed on the campaign trail.

One hundred days do not make a presidency, but that did not stop the media circus that unfolded last week. Major networks and newspapers designed "one hundred day" logos, created "scorecards" and devoted unending coverage to an evaluation of Barack Obama's performance. The White House continued to insist that the 100th day was a day like any other. Nevertheless, determined not to let the story spin out of control, the president held a prime time news conference, ensuring that the White House stamp would be on the coverage of the day.

In a sense the White House was right. The first three months of a presidency do not provide enough data to predict the long-term success or failure of an administration. But, like any other artificially imposed metric, the 100-day measure (which has been used since the first term of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933) can be useful if for no other reason than to allow an early assessment of performance, ascertaining patterns of behaviour, organisation and style of governance.

Like any other first impression, it may prove wrong, but it sets a tone and, rightly or wrongly, influences later judgements. During the long 2008 campaign we learnt a great deal about Mr Obama. He set a determined course of action and, with a discipline unmatched by his initially better known and more experienced rivals, he won. He appeared unflappable even in the face of unexpected challenges that threatened to derail his candidacy.

He promised to tackle big problems by making major changes, leaving no challenge unmet. Recall how during the early days of the financial crisis, when faced with the collapse of the country's lending institutions, John McCain suspended his campaign, announcing he was returning to Washington in an effort to affect Congress's handling of the crisis. Mr Obama rejected this approach and, unfazed, chided his opponent, reminding him that a president would be expected to do more than one thing at a time.

It is with this same sense of confidence and determination to address the multiple crises facing the country that Mr Obama has approached his first few months in office. On his first full day as president, for example, he called Arab leaders pledging his commitment to Middle East peace. The next day he appointed George Mitchell, a former senator, and Richard Holbrooke, a former ambassador, as special envoys, following this with a wide-ranging interview on Al Arabiya television reaffirming his determination to achieving peace and improving relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds.

These very same days the president ordered the closing of the prison for terrorist suspects at the US naval base on Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and ended the use of torture. He set strict limits on the role of lobbyists in his administration, expanded the rights of women in the workplace and lifted restrictions on stem cell research. The White House also secured passage of a massive "stimulus bill" that was specifically designed not only to spur economic growth and save jobs, but also to advance the agenda on which he had run his campaign: expanding health care, improving education, rebuilding the country's infrastructure and developing renewable energy.

If this were not enough, Mr Obama made clear his deadline for ending the war in Iraq, while detailing a new approach to the Afghan war, that now included an effort to stabilise the situation in Pakistan. He also took steps to deliver on his campaign promise to ease tensions and begin a dialogue with Cuba, Syria and Iran. In short, recognising that he had inherited complex crises on several fronts, Mr Obama rejected the cautionary advice that he focus on one or two and instead used his first 100 days to put his stamp on them all. He has governed, to date, as he had campaigned: taking on big issues while maintaining a dizzying pace and displaying the same unflappability and confidence and the same intelligence and discipline.

And through all of this, despite a deepening partisan divide, the president has maintained high job-approval ratings. He closed out his first 100 days with a rating of 65 per cent - averaging over 63 per cent for the entire period - the highest ratings for any president in recent history. More important is the effect he has had on the public mood. When, in October, US voters were asked whether they believed the country was moving in the right or wrong direction, only 12 per cent said "the right direction", with 79 per cent saying "the wrong direction". Today those "right direction/wrong direction" numbers are even, at 43 per cent.

Impressive? Yes, but it is only the beginning and as the president noted in his news conference, too many challenges remain, too many problems are unresolved. The economic crisis can still grow, the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan/Pakistan can worsen, or other crises can yet emerge (eg, the swine flu outbreak). As I noted shortly after this election, the true measure of a president is not found in his ability to impose his agenda but in his response to unexpected challenges. In this regard Mr Obama's ability to coolly face down multiple crises while maintaining confidence and support of the public has created a solid first impression of confidence and leadership that should serve him well in the months to come.