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Obama's first 100 days

18 May 09

Americans are responding to his message to help the country through tough times

by Alistair Bonnington

The way things have worked out I have spent two days out of every three of President Barack Obama's first 100 days in office living in America. I was there in Washington when he took the oath of office to the general acclaim of a distinctly worried nation – the principal causes of which were and are: (1) the economy; (2) the foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ;(3) the threat of future terrorist attacks on the US and its citizens. So what do Americans feel about their new leader after the lapse of 100 days – a period always seen as significant after President Roosevelt's historic first 100 days in 1933?

Well, the polls show that Obama has tremendous public support – well over what he polled in the vote last November. With unemployment at over 11% and some of the largest US corporations and banks being in effect on the skids, the Americans remain enormously optimistic about their economic future. In fact many current TV adverts refer to the US having pulled themselves up in bad times before.

Remember, they are not cushioned from the harsh economic realities of the marketplace as we are in Scotland with a large percentage of our population being in the public sector (many in "non-jobs"), and a very high proportion of the rest being on some form of state benefit. So these are desperate times for many middle and low income Americans, particularly as their families' healthcare cover is usually linked to their jobs – we tend to forget there are many millions of such US folk.

Nor are the rich Americans entirely free from worry. I was in Palm Beach for a couple of days. Now it is still reckoned to be the most upmarket holiday place in all of the USA. The shops are so exclusive that even I, a renowned fashionista, didn't know their names. But a lot of the residents are Jewish and had their money in whole or in part with a certain Mr Madoff. "Good ol' Bernie" they used to call him – they have another term (not of endearment) for him nowadays.

Bear in mind that in the US, as in almost all countries in the world in fact, it is for the individual to accumulate and manage a pension pot. So the American pensioner, even a very rich pensioner, doesn't just sit watching the monthly pension payment coming into the bank account – it is necessary to work along with a financial adviser to invest to achieve income or capital growth. This is something which inevitably will be the fate of more and more UK citizens once some Government has the guts to deal with our pension crisis, instead of irresponsibly mortgaging our childrens' lives by continuing with public pension payments we cannot afford.

The better-off US citizens who have no or limited personal worries have responded magnificently to these tough times. All charities and voluntary organisations are overwhelmed with volunteeers wanting to assist those in need in some practical way – the very opposite, I hear, from what is happening in the UK where charities report a downturn in their activities due to lack of public support.

Federal and State programmes have meant that construction of infrastructure (especially roads) continues apace here, just as FDR did in the 1930s on a grand scale with the Hoover Dam in Nevada – an engineering marvel which is often seen as the symbol of his New Deal policies.

Naturally there are consequences of the economic downturn for private building. Fewer houses are being put up. The US housing market collapse has been much worse than ours. In Las Vegas I saw a couple of "super sized" hotel sites with no workers on them. Presumably the bank has pulled the plug over fears of less money to spare for leisure trips. Newspapers are full of advice as to how to curtail family spending. I fear that many young Americans due to go to college (university) will be unable to go because their parents cannot undertake the fees commitment, which is a scary amount of money, especially if an "Ivy League" place is under consideration.

But overall, the Americans are optimistic that their nation can rise to the challenge of these economic circumstances and most, for the moment at least, are content that Obama's leadership is right for these times. Politically however – that is party politically – there is a worrying divide. I always say that the worst thing Mrs Thatcher did to the UK was to destroy consensus politics. Political parties snarling at each like juvenile fighting cocks is pointless – political debate at this level merely reinforces existing prejudices. The result is that our House of Commons and the Holyrood Parliament are rather pathetic places. But the party political divide is much worse here.

The Republicans, like Mrs Thatcher, present a Hayek-like free market extremism.They have recently proposed that the Democtratic Party should be renamed the Democratic Socialist Party, the word "socialist" being about the worst term of opprobrium which can be passed by one American on another, it appears! It seems odd to me that the country which hosted Bretton Woods and generally agrees that FDR's New Deal took the US out of the Depression of the 1920s should have in opposition a party so anti-Keynesian. There have been full page adverts in the quality press from Republican economists saying that Keynesianism is quite wrong. Whatever your politics, isn't it a bit too late for that?

Obama's polictical masterstroke against this background it to "reach out", as he puts it, to Republicans and his other natural opponents at this time of crisis. Now this entirely wrongfoots those who stand against him. If they refuse to help the President to work towards the nation's economic revival, they are seen as unpatriotic. Unlike Gordon Brown's idea of a government "of all the talents", Obama's approach is working well for him and his political supporters. In fact just this week a Republican senator defected to the Democrats. As always there is more than a degree of self interest in that particular move, but its effect is to make the Senate very nearly Obama's creature – he only needs one more senator to have the magic number of 60 seats with which Democratic senators can defeat a Republican filibuster on Administration legislative proposals.

CNN's detailed examination of Obama's first 100 days allowed the American public to vote online on various aspects of his Presidency thus far. In short the clear message is that the public are deeply impressed with their new man in the White House. They like the fact that he is articulate and seems to be in charge of all aspects of what his Administration has been about since January.

Naturally there are some points of controversy. There is concern that Obama wants to make public some documentation relating to the interrogation of Al Qaeda suspects, mainly at Guantanamo Bay. The closure of that prison camp is another of Obama's policies which is by no means popular. His description of "waterboarding" as torture is surely accurate on any sensible view, but some Americans feel it is almost treason for their commander in chief to declare something that the US Army has been doing for so long to be legally and morally wrong. There is a certain slavish loyalty to the flag and the armed services in the hearts of many Americans; and we must never forget that many are incredibly right wing from a European perspective.

Paradoxically, as I said earlier, the Americans are kindness itself to the less fortunate. Retired folk – incluing very successful and senior figures – happily volunteer to carry out public work for no fee, and often this can be pretty lowly work. Michelle Obama's public involvement in such work has no doubt been a positive factor encouraging her fellow Americans to give of their time for the community.

I have challenged a good number of American people over the past few months about their lack of a proper health service. I told them that my doctor son and most of his fellows would practise almost anywhere in the world but would refuse to come to America because of ethical objections to the rationing of health care according to wealth. A surpising number of those I spoke to admitted that the US has got this wrong and Europe has got it right. So, on my haphazard researches Obama's Health Care Bill and maybe its successors should be passed by Congress.

The bonus of having a President who comes from a disadvantaged minority seems to be invaluable at this stage in American history. Incidentally Michelle Obama made a most moving speech on 28 April at the unveiling of the first statue on Capitol Hill to a black woman. That tells you something! America may be beginning moving on race at long last. With a black President in office one hopes that progress towards more racial harmony can be made during the coming years.

It would be wrong not to mention Michelle Obama and her two wee girls as a powerful political factor supporting the Presdient. She is, as we have all seen, a big sexy girl whom even Carla Bruni (Empress of France) has to take into account on the fashion stakes. (Did I mention that I am an expert on that?)

Corporate America has gone seriously wrong, just as is the case in Scotland, the wider UK and Europe generally. One thing I find interesting is the greater involvement of lawyers and the courts in dealing with the resultant difficulties. The US criminal law has seen plenty of men in suits in handcuffs on their way to court. Much of this is not reported in the UK for some reason. I suppose in most cases we have no idea who these guys are or what their companies do.

The US courts are dealing daily with the restructuring of corporations (large and small) which file for protection under Chapter 11 at point of insolvency. The Supreme Court this week has been considering the question of the future regulation of US banks – should this be a federal or state function, or shared in some way?

Obama doesn't seem to be a soft mark on wrongdoing in any form. On that point, of interest to our profession is that he nevertheless accepts that the lawyers who advised President Bush that waterboarding was legally proper can't be prosecuted, and that seems quite correct to me – although it is difficult to see how any senior lawyer could honestly hold such an opinion in the 21st century. But on corporate crime the present Administration seems content that business people will occupy many docks in may criminal courts in the coming months.

Incidentally, while on corporate matters I don't think you're getting the full picture in the UK about the US bank bailout. It is selective. Numerous smaller US banks have gone to the wall, and sadly one assumes their depositors have lost most or all of their investment. The same is true of the TARP money, a fund started under Bush and continued under Obama. On the day of writing this, Obama has just said that he can't work with certain of those investing in Chrysler, the huge car manufacturer, because they want full recompense – so Chrysler has gone into bankruptcy.

As I observe things, the law and lawyers are in the forefront of trying to restore probity and economic stability to corporate America. I see no such moves in the UK, despite the question mark hanging over the accuracy of the recent accounts of major UK banks. I suspect we could do with more criminal law intervention in our corporate life in the UK, although one would have to accept that as a profession we just aren't trained to carry out that job at the moment – there's been no experience of it. Almost all corporate criminals in the UK go free, often with knighthoods!

Finally, to allow the Americans a right of reply in the shape of their view on the UK economy. Since January till today (29 April) I have been watching American TV (usually CNN) and reading either the New York Times or Wall Street Journal most days. I'm afraid that US commentators think that the UK is presently in an economic mess of unprecedented proportions – and remember these people have huge affection for the Brits. Last week's Wall Street Journal bracketed the UK along with Spain as Europe's economic disaster cases. They speak, in sadness, of the UK's international credit rating being downgraded (I don't really know what this means, but it's bad, I know that much).

I have one son in Australia and another in Venezuela – well I think Venezuela; he moves around a lot! Like any father I miss them. But it would be irresponsible of me to encourage them to come back to Scotland. Who would want their kids to work to pay for the damage wrought by our generation and its crew of crooks and incompetents? I don't want my offspring to pay huge taxes to support the hordes of superannuated parasites who are probably the main product of today's Scotland.

Anyway, I've rented out their rooms.

Alistair Bonnington is a retired solicitor

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