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'We must build our house upon a rock'

Barack Obama has used his first 100 days in office to remake the culture of US politics. But his cri

For nearly two years, Barack Obama criss-crossed America and conjured for crowds of thousands a vision of the transformation of their country into a more decent, capable and broadly prosperous place. He swept them up and, after going head to head with two of the best-known politicians in the country, was elected president of the United States. And then, five days before his inauguration, he drove a few blocks with his motorcade from his temporary residence near the White House through the charmless maze of downtown DC to the unprepossessing nine-storey headquarters of the Washington Post.

He was there to meet the newspaper’s editorial board. It had the feel of a last-minute, grudging submission to the ways of the capital for Obama, who had not deigned to visit the board during the campaign. The board – joined by Warren Buffett, an Obama supporter and major Washington Post shareholder – hit the president-elect with questions that, while amiably delivered, swept away the airy visions of the campaign trail with the grey realities of a Washington gripped by crisis. Did the country, asked one editor, have “the resources to cope with all the problems it faces”? Wasn’t Obama worried about the country’s creditworthiness if its debt grew too large? How, added another, would he get the pension and retiree health programmes out of the red?

In his answers to these questions, Obama managed to slip in just one aside about the plans at the heart of his platform – sweeping reforms of health care, energy policy and education which, together, would put the country on a whole new economic footing and make it more socially cohesive into the bargain. When the hour was up, he strode through the newsroom to shake hands with the paper’s rank and file, the smile as broad and assured as ever. But in the big speech on the Mall a few days later, it was clear he had absorbed the sobriety that had pressed on him in that conference room and around Washington. “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility,” he said, and then it was off to work.

As it turned out, however, it was not the eloquent new president, but his profanity-prone chief of staff who would utter what many would consider the defining line of Obama’s first three months in office. “Rule one: Never allow a crisis to go to waste,” declared Rahm Emanuel, only five days after the election. “They are opportunities to do big things.”

The Republicans came to see this as the driving theory of Obama’s opening act, accusing him of appropriating a crisis to false ends. But Emanuel’s line was telling less for what it asserted than what it concealed: the growing awareness within the young administration that the crisis was as much a threat as an opportunity. Once Obama took office, Emanuel’s assertion in the glow of victory came to seem more like a wish and a prayer than “rule one”, because it became ever clearer just how easy it would be for the crisis, far from opening the way to Obama’s agenda, to overwhelm it. Grappling with this reality, the new White House team veered between the self-assurance that characterised the campaign and conspicuous uncertainty about how to proceed in the worst storm since the Great Depression – one in which every month another 600,000 people lost their jobs and another 250,000 homes went into foreclosure, in which American households had lost $13trn, a fifth of their total wealth, and in which the US auto industry was teetering near collapse. This was the true drama of the first three months, and it remains the defining question of the Obama presidency moving forward – the tension between an immediate crisis and a long-term vision that, while linked substantively, are not as easily reconciled politically as Emanuel’s glib dictum suggested.

Here, it is helpful to take a brief detour back to the campaign trail and what Candidate Obama was presenting to voters. Never has there been a president who so needed to be measured and understood based on his campaign, so heavily did Obama rely on the act of running, instead of on a prior record, to stake his claim. The candidate’s diagnosis was that the country was seriously out of kilter, in ways both material and moral, in its economic life and its detour into a misbegotten war. His basic pitch was that he would put it back in balance. The gap between rich and poor was growing; families in the middle were having a harder time getting by; the special interests held too much sway – those were all Democratic standards. What set them apart in Obama’s framing was the connection to something more ineffable: the suggestion that what had been lost was something broader than the promise of a good job and that the fix would involve more than just higher taxes on oil companies or an individual health insurance mandate. Rather, there would need to be a wholesale transformation of the economy and the country and how people related to it.

Through force of reason and inspiration and charisma, he would pull together majorities – big, Reaganesque majorities – to address the big problems that had been deflected by cant and cynicism for all these years. “The size of our challenges has outstripped the capacity of a broken and divided politics to solve them,” was how he’d put it in the big arenas.

Then came the crisis. In the usual telling, the September collapse secured Obama’s victory. It provided a damning indictment of the incumbent party’s economic policies and confirmed, in extreme form, Obama’s diagnosis that the economy was out of whack. It also highlighted his essential steadiness, contrasted as it was with his opponent’s maverick outbursts. And yes, in theory, the big crisis had opened the door for the November victor to carry off big deeds, and also to potential posterity, given that presidential greatness seemed to require national trauma on one’s watch.

But all this overlooks that, at some level, the crisis from the outset was, for Obama, a diversion. He did not need the crisis to win – and he did not need the crisis to do what he wanted to do. After all, his whole campaign had revolved around his ability to rally voters to the idea that the time had come to try once again to get the big things done. It was a case he was able to make during the first months of a recession, when it was not necessarily plain to all that true disaster was looming.

As it turned out, the rhetorical demands would be quite a bit different. Articulating the ills besetting the country was no longer necessary when the world was crashing down: no one doubted that things were wrong. Instead, it all became a question of the cure, and here is where it got tricky. The crisis had buttressed his basic case that the country needed to change, but it had done so in such a brutal way that the new administration would gladly have done without it, not only because of the damage it wreaked on the country but because it required solutions that, while related in some ways to Obama’s agenda, were in crucial ways different and might even undermine it.

There were two main parts of the immediate solution: financial rescue and fiscal boost, and both presented threats as well as opportunities. The overhaul of Wall Street had roots in Obama’s campaign vision. He had given several speeches in lower Manhattan, well before the big crash, about the need for tougher regulation and a new ethos. “Our free market was never meant to be a free licence to take whatever you can get, however you can get it,” he said at the Nasdaq in 2007. “Instead of thinking about what’s good for America or what’s good for business, a mentality has crept into certain corners of Washington and the business world that says, ‘What’s good for me is good enough.’”

But the collapse forced a messier and more urgent response than whatever combination of bully-pulpit chastening and long-term reforms he would otherwise have carried out. Most obviously, it required a big bailout before anything else. This was an unappealing charge for any leader, as George W Bush and Congress had learned months earlier, but it proved particularly ticklish for Obama, because it highlighted a tension in his politics that had previously gone mostly unnoted.

He was, on the one hand, a liberal Democrat with strong egalitarian instincts, who had started out as a community organiser, disdained the high-paying jobs and showed flashes of a moralistic scorn for seven-figure salaries and the whole eat-what-you-kill culture of Wall Street. But he was also someone who had gone to the top schools with many of the princes of finance, had raised great deals of money from them, and had peopled his inner circle with protégés of the king of them all, the Citigroup executive Robert Rubin. His Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, had hobnobbed with Wall Street titans as head of the Federal Reserve in New York. His top economic adviser was Larry Summers, Rubin’s successor as Treasury secretary, who, it was revealed last month, had earned $5.2m in a brief one-day-a-week stint at a hedge fund before joining Obama’s team, on top of $2.7m in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and others. The tension carried to Obama’s disposition – while his politics lean to the little guy, he is far too cerebral and composed to be comfortable waving a pitchfork.

From the outset, Obama did his best to gloss over this tension, declaring in his inaugural speech that the crisis was the consequence of not only “greed and irresponsibility on the part of some”, but also “our collective failure to make hard choices”. Yet conflict flared in the bushfire over his nominee for health-care tsar, the former Senate leader Tom Daschle, who was felled less by his failure to pay taxes than by the trappings that surrounded the scandal – his car and driver, his millions in earnings as a quasi-lobbyist, his high-priced speeches to health-care companies. Obama let Daschle walk away in February, the same week as he announced executive compensation limits for firms getting bailout funds. But then the split really erupted in a media-fuelled furore over bonuses for AIG. At first, the administration tried to play down the anger, Summers murmuring regretfully about the sanctity of contracts, and then it tried to avoid being consumed by the ire, with Obama giving a not entirely convincing display of pique: “How do they justify this outrage to taxpayers?”

Things settled down after a few days as Obama tried at a press conference to put the matter to rest for good with an appeal to his founding theme of unity. “One of the most important lessons to learn from this crisis is that our economy only works if we recognise that we’re all in this together,” he said. “The rest of us can’t afford to demonise every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit.”

But, on this front at least, Obama’s vision of national solidarity seemed further away than ever: even if he managed to rebuild the markets, the rebound was going to be as divisive as the crash had been, with more riches flowing to the hedge-fund guys with the riches required to play in the rescue. And even if the administration did, in the end, manage to muddle the markets back to viability, this front had exposed an uncharacteristic lack of direction and clarity, most on display in Geithner’s shaky presentation of his initial rescue plan. This was not what Obama or his message had prepared for – uplift and unity and resolve meant little in the face of frozen credit markets and piles of toxic assets.

The fiscal boost, on the other hand, seemed at first to be the area where the administration could do the most to fulfil Emanuel’s call for capitalising on the crisis. Ever more economists were in agreement that the country needed a stimulus package of as high as $1trn. This seemed a clear opportunity for the administration to lay the groundwork on its long-term agenda, and President Obama made explicit that this was what he was going to do, saying in his first weekly YouTube address to the nation after being sworn in that his plan would be “not just a short-term programme to boost employment”, but “one that will invest in our most important priorities”.

To help make the link, the White House called the plan not a “stimulus”, but a “recovery and reinvestment”. Yet, even here, the relationship between crisis and agenda was fraught. For one thing, the stimulus required spending tens of billions for things that were geared more towards simply keeping the neediest afloat than serving Obama’s reform agenda – money for food stamps, unemployment insurance, Medicaid for the poor. For another, it meant spending even the money that was targeted towards his priorities with less forethought than would have been ideal. The stimulus included more than $100bn for education, for instance, but in spite of Obama’s claims that it would spark nationwide reform, much of the money had to be rushed out to help districts balance their budgets and forestall layoffs, postponing any real reform push.

Most of all, the sheer size of the package set the stage for panic about the fiscal impact of Obama’s plans before he had even been able to present the plans themselves. The White House was in a bind – should it shoot for the moon, knowing that the stimulus might be its last best chance to do something big, or should it appear relatively restrained, thereby saving some political capital for later? It aimed somewhere in between, seeking a package to the order of $800bn and assuming that Congress would pile some more on top of that. But things didn’t work out that way. By letting congressional leaders fill out the details of the plan, the White House delegated defence of the package to figures far less popular than Obama himself. As Republicans hammered away at relatively tiny but eye-catching provisions, the White House stayed above the fray. This tactic allowed Obama to go unscathed, but left the package itself tarnished in the public eye – and also smaller than what the White House was hoping for, because getting the few Republican votes needed to pass the bill through the Senate now meant shaving off tens of billions in spending.

When Obama finally did weigh in on the package’s behalf, he had to do so with an urgency that bordered on fearmongering. In the end, the package was $787bn, but $70bn was for an annual patch of the tax code that all agreed was in no way stimulative. A few days before the bill was to be signed, Emanuel called some of us to his West Wing office to spin the stimulus as a shining achievement, but conceded that the White House had aimed too low and had settled for less than was ideal. “We clearly thought [the economy] needed more, but it was more important to get it done than argue about just that,” he told me. “At the end, it became a choice between passage or not.”

This was the prelude to the unveiling in late February of the plans that represented, in a way the stimulus could not, the pre-crisis Obama agenda – his ten-year budget blueprint. Here was the platform as it had been envisioned all along: middle-class tax cuts, universal health care, a cap-and-trade programme for carbon emissions, big education reforms and investments. All of this was at least partly paid for by a restoration of Clinton-era marginal tax rates for the wealthy (plus lower tax benefits for wealthy taxpayers’ charitable deductions and mortgage interest payments), in addition to proceeds from auctioning carbon permits and from clampdowns on a range of disfavoured industries, from college loan firms to oil and gas companies.

It was hard to miss Obama’s alacrity as he presented the plans in his joint address to Congress. This was what he had signed up for, not for Wall Street bailouts or fiscal stimulus. Preserving the agenda had not been easy; some of his top advisers had argued that the crisis left no room right now for health-care reform, the one big unfinished task from the

New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Together with his emerging response to the crisis, the plan sketched the outlines of his brand of progressivism for those who still had any doubt. He undoubtedly wanted to give government a more activist role in American life, but only up to a point – his health-care reform retained private insurers, he was resisting calls to nationalise the banks, he showed a noted distaste for the government’s intervention in the auto industry, he favoured market-based incentives over mandate whenever possible, and the stimulus plan had avoided creating New Deal-style government make-work jobs.

His greater interest appeared to be not in the means of expanded government, but in its ends: narrowing the big inequalities of assets and opportunity. Each reform in its own right looked relatively incremental – the tax benefit tweaks, for instance, would only bring rates closer to where they had been under Ronald Reagan. Taken together, however, they constituted a striking reordering of US capitalism towards, yes, a more European-style model, with more of a lift for those looking for a foothold in the jungle and smaller winnings for those who had made it to the top.

At first, the scope of this ambition inspired awe within the Beltway: another Reagan! But then came the big chorus in reaction, the retort to Emanuel’s “first rule”, a retort that would not have been available to the critics in the absence of a crisis: Obama was “doing too much”, pressing ahead with a long-term agenda when short-term disaster still loomed, imperilling the nation’s future with long-term def­icits already swollen by spending on the crisis.

Congressional accountants questioned Obama’s rosy estimates of the economic growth that would be produced by his big investments. And the critique came not just from the usual suspects. Most damaging was the pointed observation by Warren Buffett. “Job one is to win the war – the economic war – job two is to win the economic war, and job three,” Buffett said. “And you can’t expect people to unite behind you if you’re trying to jam a whole bunch of things down their throat.”

At the heart of the serious critics’ case was an economic argument that the collapse had some very specific causes – a housing bubble, poorly regulated financial markets, easy money – and that it was simply a stretch for Obama to link his health care and energy agenda to this moment. This argument, however, underestimated what it was up against. Obama was pressing ahead with his agenda not only because he had his own economists making the case that the links did exist, but because his entire campaign had been built around those links, the country’s fundamental imbalance, and the promise of transformation to set things right.

Everything was connected – the African-American kid watching too much TV, the Rust Belt city bleeding jobs, the banker making obscene amounts of money. The solutions would be connected, too. To expect the president to be satisfied with a technocratic fix of the crisis – ending a credit crunch and getting things back to a pre-Lehman status quo – was to misread the scope of his message and ambition. He made some seeming concessions to the “doing too much” chorus, acceding to congressional Democrats’ decision to postpone the hard call about how to pay for health care and the rest.

But on 14 April, in a lengthy speech that was intended more for posterity than for his student audience at Georgetown University, Obama made it clear that, as he saw it, the link between crisis and long-term vision remained unbroken, and would define the remainder of his presidency. It is as close as to an Obamanomics manifesto as exists. “Each action we take and each policy we pursue is driven by a larger vision of America’s future – a future where sustained growth creates good jobs and rising incomes; a future where prosperity is fuelled not by excessive debt, reckless speculation and fleeing profit, but is instead built by skilled, productive workers . . . we have to realise that we cannot go back to the bubble-and-bust economy that led us to this point,” he said.

And then the biblical metaphor, which, in its grandiose overtones, left no doubt about the breadth of what was being sought: “We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad . . . If we don’t lay this new foundation, it won’t be long before we are right back where we are today.”

Obama’s campaign promise had revolved not only around what he would do, but around how he would do it, and here, too, the crisis complicated things. It was in the area of style and process that Obama had drawn his sharpest distinction with Hillary Clinton – their platforms might be similar, he implied, but only he would be able to transcend gridlock and petty point-scoring to unify the country and actually get things done. It was too early after three months to say whether Obama’s clampdown on lobbyists would change the political culture; in fact, some of his supporters were arguing that he’d gone too far, by banning from the administration even those lobbyists who had represented progressive causes, not industries. On the matter of unifying the country, however, it took the opposition little time to declare him a failure: not a single Republican in the House voted for the stimulus package, and only three in the Senate did, so how could Obama claim to be bridging the partisan gap?

Part of the answer lay in the crisis – Obama had reached out, inviting Republican leaders to the White House for cocktails and a Super Bowl party, but was unwilling to make big concessions on legislation with such big stakes for the economy. Had his first term started off with a matter of lesser import, some early bipartisan victories might have been on the cards.

That said, the Republicans’ charges of failed bipartisanship and the hand-wringing that ensued in the Beltway press as it tried to allocate blame for the perpetuation of the old divides also constituted a misinterpretation of what Obama’s “new politics” had really been about. He had not promised split-down-the-middle moderation. No, the new politics had all along been more about tone than compromise, about treating the other side with respect and engaging in good-faith debate instead of cynical gamesmanship.

So that when it came time to sell the stimulus, and the other side presented a package consisting mostly of tax cuts and began lambasting the stimulus bill as a “spending” bill, there would be no concession for the sake of it. His bipartisanship depended on intellectually serious debate, and, as he saw it, arguing against government spending when the economy was facing a $2bn gap in demand was not serious. The bill passed on a near party-line vote. But his outreach had arguably not failed altogether. Republicans were speaking about him with a respect that had often been lacking in the Bush-Clinton era, And his overtures, stylistic as they may have been, had registered with the public, which was giving him credit for trying.

Not that he avoided game-playing entirely, either. Obama showed a tendency to exaggerate the position of the opposition to make it easier to knock down, as in: “There seems to be a set of folks who . . . just believe that we should do nothing” about the crisis. And his lieutenants enjoyed picking a fight with Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing talk-show host who has put himself forward as the de facto leader of the rudderless GOP. Framing the opposition as belonging to the likes of Limbaugh surely helped the White House politically, but also looked a lot like old-style point-scoring.

The truth was, however, that the Republican Party had moved right as it became smaller, leaving far fewer targets for potential outreach. With not a single Republican representative left in the New England House delegation, conservative Southerners dominated the party’s caucus in the lower chamber. In the Senate, one of the three Republicans to vote for the stimulus, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, announced on 28 April that he was switching to Democrat after 28 years in Congress, the better to win re-election in a state that has typified the Democratic ascendance with suburban moderates, younger voters and the burgeoning non-white electorate. Karl Rove made much of a poll last month showing that Obama’s standing among Republicans was lower than that of any other recent president with the opposition party. What Rove did not note was that polls also showed that the share of voters identifying as Republicans was also way down, around 22 per cent. The party will eventually rebound – likely thanks less to a grand overhaul than to an eventual Democratic stumble – but for the time being, it consists largely of a rump faction that would be hard for any Democratic president to make inroads with.

Indeed, so shrunken is opposition that it has grown clear in recent weeks that the president will have to worry more about the resistance he will face from the more conservative members of his own party, whose support he needs for a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate. Even as some of these senators fretted aloud about the long-term deficits envisioned in Obama’s budget, they set about trying to block many of the measures he was counting on to at least try to pay for his plans. The senator from Nebraska, home to student loan companies, wants to keep huge subsidies for such firms; the senator from Louisiana is against higher taxes for oil and gas companies; the senator from North Dakota is against reducing subsidies for wealthy farmers even as he, leader of the budget hawks, demands spending restraint. And countless other Democrats spoke out against trimming wealthy taxpayers’ deductions, which they say would reduce charitable giving.

Obama showed flashes of a willingness to push back against these senators and the entrenched interests they represent.

At his second press conference, he gave a hard-edged defence of his tax deduction proposal which demonstrated, again, the moral egalitarianism that lies at the heart of his economic policy. “It is a realistic way for us to raise some revenue from people who’ve benefited enormously over the last several years,” he said. “It’s not going to cripple them. They’ll still be well-to-do. And, you know, ultimately, if we’re going to tackle the serious problems that we’ve got, then, in some cases, those who are more fortunate are going to have to pay a little bit more.”

He urged his defence secretary, the moderate Republican holdover Robert Gates, to proceed with cuts to costly weapons programmes over the objections of Democratic congressmen with production jobs in their districts. And in late April, he signalled that he would be open to pushing through health-care reform with only a simple majority in the Senate, over the wishes of conservative Democrats who are hoping he will seek a super-majority with more moderate reforms. On several other fronts, however, the president stood less firm. He gave up on the farm subsidy cuts, he has not yet pressed Congress to pass controversial pro-organised labour legislation, and he may drop one of the key provisions of his cap-and-trade plan (auctioning emissions permits instead of giving them away free) in order to mollify Democrats from fossil fuel-dependent Midwestern states.

Yet, as much as Obama’s new politics has been about changing the way Congress and the rest of Washington work, it was also always partly about Obama himself – about his attempt to model in his every speech and interaction an unstuffy but serious thoughtfulness of a sort that the pundit class had come to assume was not a viable proposition in American politics. In less sobering times, his earnest deliberativeness and stern grip of the facts might come to seem wearyingly didactic; but, in this moment, they still come across as reassuring proof of supreme competence and fluency, as measured by his stubbornly high personal approval ratings.

His disquisitions may verge on the professorial, but if so, he thinks highly of his students’ ability, and speaks to them as informed adults, in complex paragraphs and without condescension. His famous ability on the campaign trail to avoid being thrown by the daily twists and turns has been tested in the White House, where it is harder to maintain such a long view – one cannot simply focus on the primary a month hence; now, everything can matter, as Obama learned after he initially brushed aside concerns about Daschle’s finances, and Washington’s hyperactive pace is hard to resist.

“There’s . . . an impatience that characterises this town, an attention span that has only grown shorter with the 24-hour news cycle, that insists on instant gratification in the form of immediate results or higher poll numbers,” Obama lamented in the Georgetown speech. “When a crisis hits, there is all too often a lurch from shock to trance.”

Still, he has managed to look down the road and to get Americans to do the same, as evidenced by a sharp rise in the number of people who believe that the country is on the right track. Even sceptics concede he has borne the cloak of leadership with preternatural poise, combining authority with the informality of an obviously well-adjusted man – forcing out the head of General Motors and taking on the Somali pirates and leading the way against swine flu while also shaking the hand of the bobby in London while Gordon Brown breezed by. So comfortably has Obama assumed the role, and so omnipresent has he been on America’s television and computer screens (three press conferences, weekly YouTube addresses, even Jay Leno), that the historic fact of his racial origins has come to be old news in remarkably little time, in a way that would have seemed hard to imagine in the heat of the primaries, when the Reverend Jeremiah Wright was in full rant.

It is possible that the fascination around Michelle Obama has a little do with this; that, in addition to marvelling at her style and verve, Americans can still receive in watching her – as she digs a vegetable bed behind the White House or puts an arm around Queen Elizabeth or welcomes her South Side Chicago extended family to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – a jolt of history-making.

The reliance on a serene and sincere thoughtfulness is Obama’s defining asset. It also has its limits. It is what wowed Europeans on his trip abroad in early April – here was an American president holding forth on the relativism of US exceptionalism and addressing transatlantic tensions as he had the American race problem: “There have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive. But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious.”

By the time the president returned from his second big trip, to Latin America in mid-April, it was clear that the Obama doctrine abroad consisted, for now, of pretty much the same notion as his domestic politics did – that the mere act of engagement and reasoned discourse can be transformational. Most notably, the US withdrawal from Iraq would proceed at a distinctly measured pace. Yet this should not have come as a surprise. During the presidential election campaign, it was already clear how limited Obama’s options abroad would be, and that his foreign policy critique came down above all to tone and semantics. So he has appeared on a video beamed into Iranian TVs, and has dropped references to the “War on Terror”, lowering expectations for Afghan democracy even as he sent in more troops.

Dismissing the significance of these shifts is a mistake, because foreign policy is made of such recalibrations – but at this point, questioning their value is very much fair game.

His cerebral appeal did not win more Nato troops for Afghanistan, halt the eastward insinuation of the Taliban in Pakistan, get the Chinese to do more about North Korea, get Binyamin Netanyahu to stop threatening a strike against Iran or shift in his position on Palestine. Even many Republicans raised their eyebrows at Dick Cheney’s repeated warnings, in a clear break with post-presidential protocol, that Obama was making the country weaker.

The agenda – three and a half months in, it looms as the true test. As astonishingly busy as they were, the 100 first days were but a preparation for this stage, when the intentions have been signalled and the calendar blocked out, and all that remains is to see if he can make it happen.

Three versions of the health-care plan sit at the ready in the Senate, and Ted Kennedy’s illness only adds to the pressure finally to get the thing done. A 300-page energy reform plan with a cap-and-trade programme sits in a House committee, already threatened by talk that the planet’s biggest problem may need to wait for several years. A regulatory overhaul of the markets is up against a Wall Street that seems to think it may just be able to muddle through with the status quo.

Meanwhile, the crisis shows no sign of loosening its grip on the moment. Amid all this, on the evening of his 100th day, on Wednesday 29 April, Barack Obama acknowledged more candidly than ever before the extent of the challenge that the crisis had posed to his vision. “I am surprised compared to where I started, when we first announced for this race, by the number of critical issues that appear to be coming to a head all at the same time,” he said. “You know, when I started this race, Iraq was a central issue, but the economy appeared on the surface to still be relatively strong. There were underlying problems that I was seeing with health care for families and our education system and college affordability and so forth, but obviously, I didn’t anticipate the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

“And so, you know, the typical president has two or three big problems. We’ve got seven or eight problems.
And so we’ve had to move very quickly and I’m very proud of my team for the fact that we’ve been able to keep our commitments to the American people, to bring about change, while at the same time managing a whole host of issues that had come up that weren’t necessarily envisioned a year and a half ago.”

His self-assessment was a generous one. The commitments have indeed been kept in mind, but their fulfilment remains in his hands – with 1,361 days left, and counting.

Alec MacGillis is a correspondent for the New Statesman and a staff writer for the Washington Post. To read more of his articles for the New Statesman go to