Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Obama's 100 days.

In about a week he will have completed his first hundred days, that utterly arbitrary number against which we seem compelled to measure every presidency.

No special event will mark its passing; life will be pretty much the same on April 30, Obama's Day 101. Yes, that epic session of Congress in 1933 lasted 100 days: but why is a president not judged on his performance over his first 50, 200 or 500 days – or even seven? After all, that was all God needed to create the world. And what happens in those first three-and-a-bit months is rarely an exact pointer to history's verdict on the success or failure of a presidency.

Take Gerald Ford. His decision in September 1974, exactly a month after taking office, to pardon his reviled predecessor Richard Nixon is widely seen as having sealed his defeat by Jimmy Carter two years later. Americans were furious; many believed the whole episode was a fix: the presidency for Ford in return for the guarantee for Nixon that he would not face criminal prosecution. Today, however, almost every historian believes Ford did the right thing.

Bill Clinton is another example. His first 100 days were, not to put too fine a point on it, a disaster. Day One was consumed with an embarrassing flap that led to the withdrawal of the nomination of Zoe Baird to be America's first female attorney general (that distinction would ultimately go to Janet Reno), and the following 99 were an unfolding proof of Murphy's Law.

Next came a needless dispute over gays in the military that seemed to brand Clinton a feckless liberal, and the controversial appointment of his wife to head a secret health care reform task force. There was also much discussion of the new commander-in-chief's flabby salute, hardening a suspicion that the former Vietnam draft-avoider retained a scorn for the armed services. Nor was Clinton praised for his handling of the Waco siege. Rounding off the 100 days was a fuss over the $200 haircut he received on Air Force One as it was parked on the tarmac at Los Angeles Airport. Reports that all air traffic was halted for hours over southern California as a result of the presidential beautification were unfounded. But the public perception of Clinton as a spoiled child of the 1960s was set in stone.

Obama's first hundred days have given us a flurry of activity and, if anything, he has been accused of doing too much too quickly. We have had billion dollar stimulus packages and trips throughout Europe and the Americas, the promise to rebuild relationships with Cuba and Russia, all done with a sort of customary coolness which has enraged his opponents and brought scores of them on to the streets in silly tea parties which appeared to be protests over everything and nothing; but, basically, were an avenue for Republicans to signal to the world that they are very angry that they lost the election.

To that end they will call him a socialist and a fascist and any other -ist they can think of. If presidencies could be sunk by name calling alone, Obama would already be holed under the water line.

But the Republican hysteria has allowed Obama to rise above the fray, often looking like the only adult in the room. The recent Republican hissy fit over Obama shaking hands with Chavez being merely the latest example.

And, for progressives, there have been disappointments as well, with Obama appearing determined to uphold some of Bush's worst excesses through the courts, and an unwillingness - at least at the moment - to pursue war criminals for their crimes.

And there is every indication that Obama's next 100 days will be every bit as frenzied as the first. He has, at last, announced his intention to pursue a Middle East peace treaty.

Obama, speaking at the White House yesterday, said there was a need to try to rise above the cynicism about prospects for peace. The decision appeared to mark the end of a debate within the Obama administration between those who argued in favour of devoting time and energy to trying to resolve the conflict and those who argued it was a blind alley.

Meeting King Abdullah of Jordan at the White House yesterday, Obama said he hoped "gestures of good faith" would be made "on all sides" in the coming months. He did not say what these ­gestures, intended as confidence-building ­measures, would amount to.

The three leaders are being invited for separate talks rather than round-table negotiations. The aim is to complete all three visits before Obama goes to France for the D-Day anniversary on 6 June.

The chances of a deal in the short term appear slim and Obama yesterday acknowledged that circumstances in Israel and the Palestinian territories were not conducive to peace. "Unfortunately, right now what we've seen not just in Israel, but within the Palestinian territories, among the Arab states, worldwide, is a profound cynicism about the possibility of any progress being made whatsoever," he said.

"What we want to do is to step back from the abyss, to say, as hard as it is, as difficult as it may be, the prospect of peace still exists, but it's going to require some hard choices."

Nowhere will Obama face greater resistance within the American system than if he tries to push Israel to make "tough choices", especially with no obvious soul mate in the Israeli government; indeed, with the election of Netanyahu, he faces a man who is vehemently opposed to any deal which Obama proposes.

But, Obama appears willing to take Netananyau on, declaring yesterday his vision of a state of Palestine living in peace side by side with Israel, despite the fact that Netanyahu has refused to say that he even believes in a state of Palestine.

And, most reassuring of all for anyone exhausted by watching eight years of Bush acquiescing to any and every Israeli demand, Obama appears willing to step up to the plate and impose his vision of peace on to the Middle East.

He said yesterday: "I agree that we can't talk forever, that at some point steps have to be taken so that people can see progress on the ground. And that will be something that we will expect to take place in the coming months.

"My hope would be that over the next several months, that you start seeing ­gestures of good faith on all sides. I don't want to get into the details of what those gestures might be, but I think that the ­parties in the region probably have a pretty good recognition of what intermediate steps could be taken as confidence-building measures."

So, it has been a highly ambitious first hundred days and, if yesterday's announcement is anything to go by, the next hundred seem set to carry on in a similar vein.

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