Mood sober as president gets down to business

Thu, Jan 22, 2009, 00:00

ANALYSIS: AS THE vast crowd started leaving the National Mall in Washington following Barack Obama’s inauguration on Tuesday, the new president sat down to lunch in the Capitol’s statuary hall with dozens of friends and lawmakers, writes DENIS STAUNTONin Washington

The illness of Senator Edward Kennedy, who suffered a seizure during the lunch, cast a pall on the event but Mr Obama was already in sober mood as he addressed the senators and congressmen.

“The American people have come together across races and regions and stations. Now we have to do the same. Now it falls to us to give our fullest measure of devotion to the cause of freedom and liberty and justice, decency and dignity,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything, and I assure you, our administration will make mistakes. But what the American people I think do expect from us now is a sense not of our simply trying to advance our own concerns but trying to advance theirs.”

Mr Obama knows he enjoys the goodwill of the American public but even with the Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, his legislative agenda faces a difficult path. Senior Democrats in the Senate and the House of Representatives have made clear their determination to remain independent of the White House and some of the party’s leading figures have already voiced disagreement with the president. “I do not work for Barack Obama,” Senate majority leader Harry Reid said this month. “I work with him.”

Republicans have indicated that they will not seek to block any of Mr Obama’s cabinet appointments but the tough grilling meted out to Hillary Clinton and Tim Geithner in their confirmation hearings for secretary of state and treasury secretary sent a clear signal that the opposition is not preparing to roll over before the Obama juggernaut.

If the warning signs within the Capitol were not clear enough, the Dow Jones greeted Mr Obama’s swearing-in with a 4 per cent fall, the steepest inauguration day stock market plunge in history.

The president’s economic advisers have drawn up a detailed plan to prevent the economic recession in the US from deteriorating into a slump – pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy through tax cuts and infrastructural projects aimed at creating millions of new jobs. The problem is that nobody can be sure if a new economic stimulus package will work and fiscal conservatives fear Mr Obama’s plan could serve to swell an already bloated federal budget deficit without having a significant impact on the real economy.

Mr Obama’s decision to shut down the detention centre at Guantánamo Bay and his plan to withdraw from Iraq will help to restore US relations with its allies and improve the superpower’s image in many parts of the world. Other foreign policy issues are more complex, however, and the new president has yet to spell out in any detail, for example, how he will “forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan” as he promised in his inauguration address.

In calls to Middle East leaders yesterday, Mr Obama promised “active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term”, said his press secretary. That effort could be boosted if, as touted, he appoints former senator George Mitchell as Middle East envoy. However, there was no immediate sign yesterday that Mr Obama is preparing to break with the Bush administration’s policy of isolating Hamas and viewing the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

Mr Obama hopes to harness the American public’s unmistakable yearning for change in support of his policy plans as they meet opposition in Congress and from vested interests in Washington. His popularity at home and abroad and his personal powers of persuasion are unprecedented in recent times but as he struggles to end two wars and rescue a sinking economy, he will need all the help he can find.