First steps

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - President 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. And he 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, may not be shuttered for a year while the Obama administration decides the fate of its 250-some inmates. Obama's timetable for an Iraq drawdown calls for all combat troops to be removed by mid-2010.

Obama is signalling through these moves that change "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 that 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.

Though he cast his new ethics rules as the strictest ever, Obama has left wiggle room for lobbyists he feels he needs.

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 until last year a registered lobbyist for the defense contractor Raytheon Co.

Lynn won't be forced to step back from all decisions related to his former employer, and he has agreed to sell his stock in the top military contractor. Instead, for one year Lynn's dealings at the Defense Department will be subject to ethics reviews.

A Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said Friday that the agreement was reached between Lynn and the Obama administration.

Morrell said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates did not want Lynn to have to recuse himself outright from any decision involving Raytheon because it would severely limit his ability to do his job.

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 calender seems to require him to act this year. If he lets the debate bleed into 2010, the effort could be entangled in the midterm congressional elections.

Rep. Pete Stark, a California Democrat who favors a health care overhaul, said that interest groups who oppose big changes will find it "easier to frustrate our efforts in an election year. 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. Daschle has already begun meeting with key lawmakers and interest groups close to the debate.

On Friday, stepping quickly into a national abortion debate he largely avoided as a candidate, Obama overturned a ban on U.S. support to international aid groups that provided abortion services around the world.

Reversing the so-called "global gag rule," instituted by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, was a top priority of abortion rights supporters, who have long criticized the regulation as imperiling women's health. As a result of the rule, non-governmental organizations working in the developing world could not refer women to safe abortion providers or conduct family planning education campaigns that discussed the procedure.

The new president tried to cast his decision as a breakthrough in the decades-long debate over the federal government's involvement in family planning. "For too long, international family planning assistance has been used as a political wedge issue," Obama said in a statement.

Obama also announced he would release federal funding for the United Nations Population Fund as soon as Congress makes it available, ensuring renewed support for the U.N. family planning agency.

Abortion opponents condemned the moves, however, criticizing them as the first part in what one critic called Obama's "sweeping abortion agenda."

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

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

On a separate track, Obama will likely 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 in the Oval Office on the state of the economy, 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. 13-16 asked if people believed Obama's mandate was to achieve "major" new social and economic programs or merely small policy changes. A sizeable 71 percent wanted him to take on major programs; only 22 percent wanted small policy changes.

But "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.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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