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Gary Younge
Obama has had an epoch-defining 100 days. But vultures are gathering

Towards the end of a press conference last month, ABC News reporter Ann Compton asked Barack Obama a question simultaneously obvious and oblique. "Yours is a rather historic presidency," she said. "And I'm just wondering whether in any of the policy debates that you've had within the White House the issue of race has come up, or whether it has in the way you feel you've been perceived by other leaders or by the American people? Or has the last 64 days been a relatively colourblind time?"

Obvious because the issue of Obama's race had, directly or indirectly, dominated the national conversation for the last two years at least. So much so that his election was not just a feat of politics but of imagination. Oblique, because after just a few months it seemed like a question from a bygone age. As the number of jobless edges towards double figures, Pakistan implodes, and the nation looks ready to foreclose on Detroit, the banal fact of skin pigmentation has momentarily found its rightful place in the order of things.

"I think that the last 64 days has been dominated by me trying to figure out how we're going to fix the economy, and that affects black, brown and white," Obama replied. "And, you know, obviously, at the inauguration, I think that there was justifiable pride on the part of the country that we had taken a step to move us beyond some of the searing legacies of racial discrimination in this country, but that lasted about a day."

That was day one (and what a day it was). Wednesday will be day 100. And with it comes the stocktaking invariably attached to round numbers. While the counting of days may be arbitrary the provenance of this particular number is, for once, appropriate. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who came to power in a depression and massively expanded the role of government in a bid to apply triage to save capitalism from itself, gave the first 100 days significance. He used those first few months to prompt a raft of legislation designed to bring "immediate relief", creating the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Tennessee Valley Authority, and providing mortgage relief to millions of homeowners and farmers.

Comparisons between now and the 1930s, like those between Obama and FDR, can be overdone. The year Roosevelt won his election, unemployment reached almost 24%, the gross national product fell by 13.4, and all of his bills sailed through Congress. Things today are neither that bad nor that straightforward.

And yet, given the scale and scope of the agenda Obama has laid out so far, the comparison remains pertinent. His pledge to take on both the immediate (the financial crisis and economic recession) and the apparently intractable (healthcare, Cuba, immigration, the environment) even as he ramps down one war, escalates another and raises taxes on the rich, is epoch-defining in its ambition.

So far it seems to be popular. When Obama took the presidential oath, 78% thought the country was heading in the wrong direction; today that is down to 48%. His approval ratings are around 65% - only Reagan was in better shape at this stage (and even that was within the margin of error).

But this popularity is precarious. People like Obama far more than they like his policies. And even though they think the country is moving in the right direction, polls show this to be one of those rare periods where those same people remain unsatisfied with their lives. In other words, people are suffering and are optimistic at the same time. And the reason for their optimism is Obama himself. In a reprise of the spirit that distinguished his primary and presidential campaign, people have embraced who he is as a portent of what he might do.

There is good reason for this. On the one hand, Obama has got out in front of his agenda. In some sense, he has never really stopped campaigning. He has conducted town hall meetings everywhere from Indiana to Istanbul, and appeared on Jay Leno's couch. His reception on foreign trips to Europe, Mexico and Turkey marked a sharp break with the monosyllabic, scripted, secretive and arrogant performances of the Bush years.

On the other hand, almost every element in his agenda carries the very real possibility of failure. The war in Afghanistan is failing, the stimulus package is inadequate, the bailout is rightly unpopular, unemployment is still rising, house prices are still falling.

These are just, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, the known knowns. The known unknowns include, among others, Pakistan, Iraq, a dollar collapse, a terror attack or a bank failure. And as for the unknown unknowns - well, who knows?

Meanwhile, the vultures are gathering. One of the paradoxes of Obama's administration is that, for all his talk of bipartisanship and national unity, he is the most polarising president since such records began. The gap between how Democrats and Republicans rate him at this stage is greater than Bush in 2001 after Florida and twice as high as Nixon's during the height of the Vietnam war in 1969. This is partly because Democrats, who give him an 88% approval rating, adore him. The Obama badges are still on and the posters are still up. They no longer refer to hope, but reality. The likeness they bear no longer represents an alternative to power but power itself. But Democrats are not the only ones who find it difficult to move on from the symbolic attachment of those first days.

Wavering between hyperbole and hyperventilation, Republicans and conservatives are still struggling with defeat. In their breathless rage they compare Obama to Stalin, Hitler or Jimmy Carter - and accuse him of being a socialist, a fascist and an appeaser. The concerns they voice about the budget deficit, government intervention and inflation are valid, if wrong-headed (not least because capitalism cannot exist without them). But given their support for Bush, who expanded the deficit and the government's reach, they are not the people to make those concerns known, and in any case they make their case poorly.

So while Obama has many opponents - including some within his own party - he does not yet have a coherent, viable opposition. Nor is there any coherent ideological or organisational resistance to his agenda that could make a difference on the horizon. For while the right can keep its own supporters in bile and smear through the media, it has proved incapable of finding new recruits and has scared away many old ones. There are fewer Republicans than there were before, and those who remain are less well regarded. For the time being, they have power but not influence. That could change at any time.

The moment at which people demand that Obama deliver will be no less arbitrary than the 100 days. But it will be infinitely less predictable. In the first 100 days he can reasonably claim that these problems were bequeathed from the previous administration - but at some stage he will be understood to own them outright. The first 100 days have shown he is prepared to fight on all fronts. The next 100 will force him to pick his battles.
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