In American politics, the "100 days" of a President's first term in office represent a traditional period of reflection: how is the new President adjusting to the role of world leader? To what extent is he working with or battling against Congress? Has he begun to live up to his lofty campaign promises, or have his ideals of progress been mired in Capitol Hill's political swamps?
Epic financial crisis
Obama's determination to hit the ground running resulted in the successful implementation of two major financial initiatives: his bank rescue plan and his stimulus bill. The bank bailout coordinated a public-private partnership to buy billions of dollars of toxic assets to free up banks to lend among themselves and to companies. The overall goal of the bailouts has been to get to the bottom of the banks' distressed balance sheets and thus regain a sense of confidence in the long-term recovery of the financial sector. But many elements of the bailouts, including so-called "golden parachutes" (payouts and bonuses for failed bank executives), have been widely unpopular - Obama has had to trade on his political capital to negotiate bipartisan support in Congress.
The second and more impressive achievement of the 100 days, Obama's stimulus bill, is likely to be remembered as beginning of this President's legacy - for good or for ill. Obama pushed Congress to sign into law a $787 billion package designed to salvage millions of American jobs. Like Roosevelt before him, Obama endorsed a Keynesian approach to economic recovery. According to Keynes, a financially distressed government must stimulate public and private spending by first setting an example, pouring huge sums of taxpayer money into public works. Thus Obama's stimulus package follows Roosevelt's New Deal, with major spending on traditional sectors such as infrastructure, education and heath care, as well as 21st century demands, notably renewable energy.
But the bill also demurs to Republicans by providing tax cuts to individuals and it includes some much-derided "pork barrel" spending - essentially cash used by members of Congress to benefit and earn popularity with local industry, lobbyists, and the special interests of their constituency. Despite the compromises, the bill can be regarded as a huge early achievement. Indeed it is ultimately Obama's capacity to strike compromise itself within Washington that will determine the lasting success of his first 100 days.
After the financial crisis, Obama's second most pressing priority has been to overhaul what he views as the major errors of the Bush administration. At London's recent G20 summit, Obama flexed his muscles as an international statesman - solidifying and reaffirming America's "special relationship" with Britain, mending bruised diplomacy with Russia and attempting to reconcile some of the cross-purposes between the Eurozone and the USA.
Key to the continuing success of such efforts will be Obama's dedication to restoring America's image as a responsible superpower. In his first 100 days, Obama signed an executive order to shut down Guantanamo Bay, the much-detested prison for suspected terrorists, within a year. He further demanded an end to all acts of torture, adopting a narrower definition of acceptable interrogation techniques and broader oversight of prisons.
These reforms go some way toward setting the broader agenda of how to satisfactorily end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama has set a timeline for withdrawal of the large majority of troops in Iraq for August 2010; conversely he advocates a surge in troops in Afghanistan to combat the threat of an increasingly unstable Pakistani border. He favors bilateral and open negotiations with Iran, seeking to draw in Russia as a diplomatic ally.
The next 100 days
Undoubtedly the most important aspect of a President's first 100 days in office is to set the tone for what the American people, political figures, the press, and the world at large can expect from the President in the years to come. Obama was carried into office on a mandate of reform. His first 100 days exhibit a resolve to fight his corner on many issues at once. From the outset, Obama warned against presuming that he could solve any crisis at superhuman speeds. Politics in Washington remains a finely balanced game, and Obama must still work within the system if he is to be successful in the long term.
However, Obama has shown a resolve to multitask his political agenda and, as far as possible, to use his popularity to build up confidence in the country's direction. When one considers the enormous efforts of a nearly two-year campaign, the settling in of a new Congress, and the vast business of managing a newly-Democrat executive branch, Obama's workrate seems exceptional.
His next 100 days will demonstrate his commitment. Americans are demanding some sign of economic recovery, of political accountability, of hope that the country is not headed for a slow decline from greatness. This is as much as Obama promised in his campaign - "change we can believe in"; "hope"; "change we need"; and of course, "yes we can". In the first 100 days, Obama has taken chances; the world waits to see if he's as good as his word.