Politics

Obama Sticks to the Script in First Week of Presidency

If this is what "Change" is going to look like for the next four years, former President Bush's legacy is about to be turned upside down.

Yet it remains to be seen how much of the work of President Obama's first week in office was a show of activity right out of the gates and how much was a harbinger of things to come.

In the highly scripted first days, Obama clearly aimed to show that he was making good on his promise to bring change.

"What an opportunity we have to change this country," the Democrat told his senior staff the day after his inauguration. "The American people are really counting on us now. Let's make sure we take advantage of it."

On Thursday and Friday, Obama, with an executive pen in his left hand, overruled eight years of Bush administration policies, signing several executive orders on national security and abortion funding. 

Obama also focused on fixing the economy, repairing a battered world image and cleaning up government.

Yet domestic and international challenges continue to pile up, and it's doubtful that life will be dramatically different for much of the ailing country anytime soon.

The biggest agenda items -- stabilizing the economy and ending the Iraq war -- are complex tasks with results not expected this week, let alone this month. Obama's move to reverse Bush's policy on the treatment of detainees and interrogation techniques still leaves unanswered or unresolved questions, including how he will close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for suspected terrorists.

In other cases, Obama set out new policy, only to signal it could be applied selectively.

He decreed that interrogators must follow techniques outlined in the Army Field Manual when questioning terrorism suspects, even as he ordered a review that could allow CIA interrogators to use other methods for high-value targets. Also, while a new White House rule limits staffers' previous lobbying activities, exceptions were made for at least two senior administration officials.

"It's always a delicate task to maintain your coalition and try to expand it," said George Edwards, a political science professor at Texas A&M University. "He's making the moves in the right direction to please his supporters on signature issues. At the same time, he has not elicited immediate outrage from Republicans because he's gone out of his way to reach out to them."

Certainly, some Republicans are griping about Obama's economic stimulus plan and closing Guantanamo. But their protests are somewhat muted, perhaps because little of what Obama has done thus far is a surprise. He had prepared the country and Congress for such first steps during the campaign and transition, and has emphasized a pragmatic, bipartisan approach. He also enjoys broad public support.

Most of what he tackled came in areas where there is support across the political spectrum for a new direction, although the country is evenly divided over shuttering Guantanamo. Obama long has talked of putting solutions over partisanship in a new style of politics, and he doesn't seem eager to take up issues -- at least for now -- that create great ideological divides.

That is a sharp contrast with the last Democratic president. In 1993, Bill Clinton set the tone for an ideological presidency when he tried to overturn the ban on gays in the military, pleasing liberals and angering conservatives. It also caused an uproar with the military and Congress, neither of which was consulted.

In the past week, Obama's only real brush with issues that stoke partisan passions came when he revoked a ban on federal funding for international groups that provide or promote abortions. But he did that in the lowest-profile way -- issuing the order late Friday afternoon with no fanfare -- and the move was expected. The issue has become a political pingpong of sorts between Republican and Democratic presidents.

Obama was sworn in Tuesday with unprecedented support for a modern president and incredible optimism from the public that things will get better under him; Bush left Washington with record-low job approval ratings.

A picture of poise, Obama didn't get rattled when Chief Justice John Roberts flubbed the oath of office, an exercise repeated a day later to ensure constitutionality. He breezed through his speech -- which repudiated Bush's tenure though never personally attacked him -- without a misstep. Even with the weight of the country's troubles now on his shoulders, he was relaxed as he twirled his wife, Michelle, at celebratory inaugural balls.

"I don't sweat," Obama said on the eve of his inauguration -- a comment meant literally, and, perhaps, figuratively.

Maybe not. But he has yet to face a crisis head-on as the country's leader, and it's only then that his confidence truly will be tested.

Still, Obama clearly has made the transition to governing.

"It's as if Superman stepped out of a phone booth and became Clark Kent," said Fred Greenstein, a Princeton University professor emeritus of politics. "He's beginning to put aside the rhetoric in favor of listing the policies and doing the checklist. He's not going out of his way to show a lot of flash. It's much more lets-get-down-to-work."

That said, there's a limit to what he can do right away, Greenstein said, and "the really big things can't be done on Day One, particularly if they are going to be done well."

In a mix of symbolism and substance, Obama used a host of executive tools to put his stamp on the White House without having to go through Congress, making statements from the bully pulpit and signing White House directives.

He pledged to take bold steps to reverse the recession while meeting with his economic team, and told top military officials summoned to the White House to do whatever planning necessary to "execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq." He issued new ethics rules for his administration and pledged to preside over a transparent government.

He ordered the Guantanamo detention center shut within a year, required the closure of any remaining secret CIA "black site" prisons abroad and barred CIA interrogators from using harsh techniques already banned for military questioners. He also assigned veteran troubleshooters to the Middle East, and Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Throughout it all, Obama demonstrated noticeable stylistic differences with his predecessor.

The high-tech Obama chose to keep his cherished BlackBerry, becoming the first sitting president to use e-mail. He made an impromptu visit to the White House's cramped media quarters just "to say hello" and took a tour of the two floors. He also was spotted at one point ducking into the White House press office to consult with an aide. Bush avoided both areas at all costs.

In one Oval Office ceremony, Obama went through each executive order as he signed them, reading parts of each and methodically explaining them. He even halted a few times to ask for clarifying details from his White House counsel. That sort of deferral to someone else in a public setting and admission of a less-than-perfect command of the facts was never Bush's style.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.