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Obama breaks from Bush, avoids divisiveness

Barack Obama opened his presidency by breaking sharply from George W. Bush's unpopular administration, but he mostly avoided divisive partisan and ideological stands.
President Barack Obama gestures in the Oval Office of the White House on Thursday, where he began overhauling U.S. treatment of terror suspects by signing executive orders and a presidential directive aimed at closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center. J. Scott Applewhite / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Barack Obama opened his presidency by breaking sharply from George W. Bush's unpopular administration, but he mostly avoided divisive partisan and ideological stands. He focused instead on fixing the economy, repairing a battered world image and cleaning up government.

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

In the highly scripted first days of his administration, Obama overturned a slew of Bush policies with great fanfare. He largely avoided cultural issues; the exception was reversing one abortion-related policy, a predictable move done in a very low-profile way.

Challenges pile up
The flurry of activity was intended to show that Obama was making good on his promise to bring change. 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.

Obama's biggest agenda items — stabilizing the economy and ending the Iraq war — are complex tasks with results not expected soon. Even as Obama made broad pronouncements and signed a stream of executive orders to usher in a new governing era, his actions leave 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 Texas A&M University political science professor. "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 steps during the campaign and transition. He also has emphasized a pragmatic, bipartisan approach, and enjoys broad public support.

Most of what he tackled came in areas where there is agreement across the political spectrum for a new direction, although the country is divided over shuttering Guantanamo. Obama long has emphasized solutions over partisanship, and he doesn't seem eager to address issues — at least for now — that create great ideological divides.

In contrast with Clinton
That is a sharp contrast with Democrat Bill Clinton, who set the tone for an ideological presidency when he tried to overturn the ban on gays in the military. It pleased liberals, enraged conservatives and angered both the military and Congress, neither of which was consulted.

So far, 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. He did that quietly by issuing a memorandum late Friday afternoon. The move was expected; the issue has vacillated between Republican and Democratic presidents.

Obama was sworn in Tuesday with huge support — 68 percent in a Gallup poll released Saturday — and incredible optimism from the public; 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 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 immediately accomplish, Greenstein said, and "the really big things can't be done on Day One, particularly if they are going to be done well."

Mix of symbolism, substance
In a mix of symbolism and substance, Obama used a host of executive tools to put his stamp on the country 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 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 form 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." 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 clarification 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.