Monday, January 26, 2009

Obama Using His Personal Appeal to Put Change Into Motion

If George W. Bush saw himself as a CEO president, an efficient "decider" who relied on an administration of like-minded thinkers to get things done, President Obama is proving something else altogether. In his first week in office, Obama is giving clear signs that he is willing to trade on his own popularity, personal suasion and loose-limbed ease in the spotlight to help him lead the nation.

From his first moments in office, Obama began initiating the sharp break with his predecessor's policies that he had promised as a candidate: meeting with military leaders to begin planning the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq, signing executive orders eliminating many of the tools Bush had used in the battle against terrorism, imposing new ethics rules, and taking the first steps toward providing more transparency in government.

At the same time, he has thrown open the doors of the White House, worked to strengthen the affinity he enjoys with young voters, and made an unusual early presidential visit to the State Department, where he received an enthusiastic greeting from workers pleased by his promise of sustained international engagement.

"He ran promising real change in policies and in how the White House is run, and that is what he is doing," said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's deputy communications director.

Obama begins his presidency facing two wars and an economic downturn more serious than any since the Great Depression, but he also brings to the task something Bush did not when he arrived in Washington. A recent Washington Post poll found Obama to be viewed favorably by nearly eight in 10 Americans, making him the most popular president to take office in a generation and allowing him to start out with the kind political capital that Bush often claimed but in truth enjoyed only fleetingly.

Days after Obama's Tuesday inauguration, hundreds of tourists continued to linger in front of the White House. "I am very energized, I'm very hopeful for the country," said Juliet Patterson of Bedford, Tex., as she maneuvered past workers taking apart the presidential reviewing stand to find a clear photo of Obama's new residence.

"I think that Obama has learned from some of the mistakes in the past and has followed up on some of the successes in the past," said Stephen J. Farnsworth of George Mason University, author of "Spinner in Chief: How Presidents Sell Their Policies and Themselves." "What you see in big things and small things is a signal going out that the Bush administration perspective about many things is over."

In many ways, Farnsworth said, Obama is following a presidential tradition. If President Jimmy Carter ended his term with the perception that he was weak, Ronald Reagan made a point of conveying the idea that he was a strong and decisive leader. If President George H.W. Bush was seen as detached from the concerns of average Americans, Bill Clinton sought to emphasize a common touch. After the public personal dramas of the Clinton years, Bush said he would bring a higher moral standard and discipline to the Oval Office.

The change in the White House has been both substantive and stylistic. One of the first photos of Obama at work in the White House captured him immersed in a phone conversation as he sat at his Oval Office desk in shirt sleeves. That offered a stark contrast to Bush, who could be easygoing and unpretentious but demanded certain formalities, including suit jackets in his office.

"Americans seem to want in presidents what they didn't have in the previous president," Farnsworth said.

Events also have a way of changing how a president does his job, and a commander in chief's attempt to paint an image in the public's imagination has the potential to breed charges of hypocrisy later.

Bush started off in office dubbing himself "a uniter, not a divider." Stung by the scant support he received from African Americans in his first presidential campaign after enjoying substantial support as governor of Texas, he made a point of reaching out, calling civil rights leader Jesse L. Jackson and lunching with then-D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Among Bush's earliest legislative achievements was passage of the No Child Left Behind education law, a bipartisan triumph that forged what proved to be a short-lived partnership between Bush and liberal icon Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

But by the time Bush left office, his popularity with African Americans was at its nadir and he was accused of heightening partisanship in Washington by steamrolling his Democratic opponents.

For now, Obama seems confident that he can use his personal appeal to help effect change. Often, he has been somber in describing the economic challenge before the nation, seeking to stoke a sense of urgency in the public about his proposed solutions. And despite Bush's failure to change the tenor of political discourse in Washington, Obama has also been insistent in calling for bipartisan cooperation and has condemned the "silliness" that he says too often infects political debate in Washington.

If the press has chafed at what it sees as a tightfisted control of information by Obama aides -- a carryover from the campaign -- the president has attempted to make himself a powerful symbol of openness. During his first full day in office, Obama stood in a receiving line at the White House, casually greeting several hundred guests who won an opportunity to visit the executive mansion for an open house.

"Welcome, enjoy yourself," Obama told a young man in a black sweater. "Roam around. Don't break anything."

Last week, Obama startled journalists who work at the White House with an unannounced visit to the press room. Reporters and photographers surrounded Obama as he explored the cramped work area. Obama introduced himself to reporters he had not met, but he fended off substantive questions, saying he just wanted to say hello.

"I can't come in and shake hands if I'm going to get grilled every time," he said when confronted with a question about a former Raytheon lobbyist whom he had nominated to be deputy secretary of defense, in a departure from his own ethics policy.

On Friday, Obama met with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders, hoping to win support for his economic stimulus plan, which is encountering stubborn opposition from House Republicans. Obama has juggled the composition of the plan in hopes of allaying Republican objections. But at one point during the meeting, he reportedly responded to GOP leaders who disagree with his economic approach with a friendly but firm reminder of the November election results: "I won," he said.

Away from the office, Obama conveys the impression of someone totally at ease in his new role. On the eve of his inauguration, Obama crisscrossed his new home town like a local. In visits to a shelter for homeless boys in Northeast and Calvin Coolidge Senior High School in Northwest, Obama appeared laid-back, lacing his remarks with humor and taking time to meet people and pose for pictures.

As he used a long-handled roller to paint the walls of the boys' dormitory at the shelter, Obama asked the teenagers about his paint stroke.

"What do you think, guys?" Obama said, wearing jeans and an open-collar casual shirt. "That's smooth, isn't it?"

"I do hope they're watching my technique," he joked with reporters. "It's not rocket science. You take the pole and the roller, then you roll. But you do need to apply some elbow grease -- just like everything we do."

Asked if his painting was making him sweat, Obama said, shrugging: "Nah, I don't sweat. You ever see me sweat?"



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