OBAMA’S FIRST MONTHS

In many ways, Obama’s first policy initiatives lived up to the promise of change. In his first three months, he announced plans to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, barred the use of torture, launched a diplomatic initiative to repair relations with the Muslim world, reversed the previous administration’s executive orders limiting women’s reproductive rights, and abandoned Bush’s rhetoric about a God-given American mission to spread freedom throughout the world. When Supreme Court justice David Souter announced his retirement, Obama named Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and third woman in the Court’s history, to replace him. The Senate confirmed her in August 2009.

Obama’s first budget recalled the New Deal and Great Society. Breaking with the Reagan-era motto, “Government is the problem, not the solution,” it anticipated active government support for health care reform, clean energy, and public education, paid for in part by allowing Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy to expire in 2010. He pushed through Congress a “stimulus” package amounting to nearly $800 billion in new government spending— for construction projects, the extension of unemployment benefits, and aid to the states to enable them to balance their budgets.

In the spring of 2009, Republicans and independents opposed to President Obama’s “stimulus” plan held “tea parties” around the country, seeking to invoke the tradition of the Boston Tea Party and its opposition to taxation. In this demonstration in Austin, Texas, some participants wore hats reminiscent of the revolutionary era. One participant carries a sign urging the state to secede from the Union.

The design for a series of office buildings that will replace the World Trade Center illustrate the juxtaposition of optimism and fear in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The soaring towers underscore Americans’ capacity for recovery and regeneration. But at the insistence of the New York City police, the base of the Freedom Tower, at the left, consists of reinforced concrete, giving the building, at ground level, the appearance of a fortress.

The largest single spending appropriation in American history, the hill was meant to pump money into the economy in order to save and create jobs and to ignite a resumption of economic activity.

For most of Obama’s first year in office, congressional debate resolved around a plan to restructure the nation’s health care system so as to provide insurance coverage to the millions of Americans who lacked it, and to end abusive practices by insurance companies, such as their refusal to cover patients with existing illnesses. After months of increasingly bitter debate, in March 2010, Congress passed a sweeping health-care bill that required all Americans to purchase health insurance and most businesses to provide it to their employees. It also offered subsidies to persons of modest incomes so they could afford insurance, and required insurance companies to accept all applicants. This was the most far-reaching piece of domestic social legislation since the Great Society of the 1960s, and it aroused strong partisan opposition. Claiming that it amounted to a “government takeover” of the health-care industry (even though plans for a government-run insurance program had been dropped from the bill), every Republican in Congress voted against the bill.

Like many of his predecessors, Obama found that criticizing presidential power from outside is one thing, dismantling it from inside another. He reversed his previous promise to abolish the military tribunals Bush had established. He pledged to complete the planned withdrawal from Iraq, but dispatched 17,000 more American troops to Afghanistan, and in December 2009 announced plans to send another 30,000, creating the danger that his administration would become bogged down in another military quagmire. His stimulus package marked a new departure, but he chose his economic advisers from Wall Street and continued the Bush administration policy of pouring taxpayer money into the banks and assuming responsibility for many of their debts. In the meantime, the economy continued to hemorrhage jobs (the unemployment rate reached 10.2 percent in November). As 2010 neared its midpoint it remained unclear how long it would take for the financial system to resume normal operations and for the country to emerge from the Great Recession.

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