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Obama's first 100 days
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 30 - 04 - 2009

With great panache, Obama has passed the first marker in his promising presidency, writes Abdel-Moneim Said*
The world doesn't change in 100 days. People don't change in 100 days; neither do countries. Still, it is the custom in democratic states to assess the performance of new governments after the first 100 days, a period deemed adequate to gauge the gap between promises made during elections and actual policy followed by new leaders.
No one expects a new leader to work miracles, turn the world upside down, or even introduce radical changes in internal and external conditions. But what people expect is for the new leader to choose the right team that would be able to take policy from the drawing board to successful implementation. With judicious choice comes a certain ability to inspire and rally the nation around the methods and objectives of the new leadership. For assessment purposes, it is customary to give the new leader a "honeymoon", so to speak -- a grace period during which he is allowed to slip a bit and experiment a little. And once that honeymoon is over, people begin to expect more. A new leader must therefore express his objectives, so that he may stand accountable for his style of government and the methods he uses to achieve these objectives.
Obama has already got this honeymoon, and -- 100 days later -- it is time to gauge his performance. In our Arab world, we often discount the influence of the individual and the political leader, though we have been governed by individuals throughout ancient and modern history. The emphasis in democratic countries, however, is on the role of the "institution" as guardian of the unchanging principles of the state. It is impossible, for example, for the US president to change the constitution, abolish capitalism, re- establish the isolationist policies of the 1920s, ditch Israel, or walk out on the Western alliance. Still, a president can be a major vehicle of change, especially during the moments of major shifts in history. For at such moments, the institutions tend to lack direction and have second thoughts.
Obama came to power in a moment fraught with uncertainty. He took over from an administration that has led the US to the far right, introducing ultra- conservative policies and resorting all too often to military force. The actions of the previous administration have led to a grinding economic crisis as well as intractable wars in Iran and Afghanistan.
Obama himself was a turning point. And 100 days into his administration, we're already getting used to the change that he represented. It is as if the US has had presidents of African origins since its inception in 1776. It is as if the first US presidents -- George Washington and Thomas Jefferson included -- weren't slave-owners. When such a momentous shift becomes something normal, one may surmise that the new president has succeeded in his first 100 days in office in convincing the American people of his presidential worth. In other words, he has filled "his boots" as the Americans say, or "his chair" as the Egyptians say.
The first 100 days brought up a new reality; namely, that the US president is no longer gauged by what Americans think of him, but what the world thinks. This is a trend that Gallup pollsters brought to light of late. They said that Obamamania has become a transatlantic phenomenon, leaving European presidents -- Sarkozy for example -- envious.
Obama navigated his first 100 days in office through a succession of decisions that transcended his colour and origin, even his amazing oratorical skills. His first move was to choose powerful assistants, including former election rivals, seasoned professionals, and a Republican secretary of defence. Obama also stressed national unity for the sake of much-needed bipartisanship. His choices established him as a man of solid character, a leader who is not afraid of controversy, a politician who doesn't shy from confrontation, and a president who seeks political harmony without compromising his original vision.
Apart from putting together a credible team, Obama managed to hit the ground running, addressing the country's woes from his first moments in office. He has taken swift action on the economic front, putting in place a specific economic plan and explaining future steps. He maintained a cheerful outlook on the economy even when warning the American people that further sacrifices would be needed. In doing so, he combined inspiration with true leadership, comforting the nation while shoring up confidence in the country's welfare.
The greatest accomplishment, however, was in foreign policy. Without the ice-breaking moves he inspired, it would have been unthinkable for someone like Hugo Chavez to present the US president with his book as a gift. Calling the past 50 years of US policy on Cuba ineffective was another move of great audacity. Also, his choice of veteran diplomats, the likes of Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell and Dennis Ross, to handle Middle East politics was impeccable.
Although Obama made no secret that Pakistan and Afghanistan are his top priority in the Middle East, followed by Iraq and Iran, we all know that those areas are all easily influenced by developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict. So even before the first 100 days in office were over, a new process was underway in the Middle East. Have you noticed that? If you haven't, just check the visit by Egypt's Omar Suleiman to Israel and the invitations for Mahmoud Abbas, Binyamin Netanyahu, and Hosni Mubarak to visit Washington. The second 100 days in office has already begun.
* The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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