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Obama Shows His Substance and Style

President Barack Obama and Congress closed out their first extended stretch of work last week, an intense period in which the new president boldly remade Bush-era policies while offering a distinct vision of what his own presidency will be.

In areas of style, substance and philosophy, Obama is striking a path entirely unlike that of his predecessor and, indeed, from anything else that has gone before. In many ways, the United States is already a very different place than it was just a few months ago.

While, on the heels of his disastrous effort to reshape the nation’s health system, former President Bill Clinton committed himself to tinkering on the edges of the economy with boutique programs designed to advance specific causes, Obama is interested in nothing less than reshaping huge swaths of the economic system.

While former President George W. Bush gave the appearance in the final days of his administration of being reluctantly dragged into intervening in the economy, Obama has made no apologies, and he even felt compelled to reassure everyone that he favors capitalism.

The list of actions he has taken — many sought for years by Democrats and opposed for the similar lengths of time by Republicans — is startling.

Obama helped move through Congress a nearly $787 billion stimulus bill that included huge outlays for road building and alternative energy projects, some of which will drive on the new asphalt.

He revised U.S. interrogation policies and began closing the Guantánamo Bay prison. He changed U.S. policy on abortion, allowing funding of family planning centers overseas that provide abortion services while freeing up federal money for embryonic stem-cell research.

Obama signed an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and legislation extending the deadline for filing equal pay lawsuits.

He further centralized power in the White House with new offices on climate change and urban affairs.

The president, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton leading the way, has moved to revive the Middle East peace process, repair frayed relations with Russia and Europe, and engage China.

He fired the CEO of General Motors and forced Chrysler to merge with Italian automaker Fiat — or face ruin.

He has introduced various strategies to revive the financial sector, including a public-private plan to scoop up banks’ toxic assets.

Obama has established a mantra that he and his aides intend to keep repeating for the foreseeable future: health care, energy and the environment and education. With his budget, Obama signaled that he will revamp U.S. policy in these areas even while trying to rescue the struggling economy. Deficits created to fund changes are characterized by aides as “investments— that will pay off with cost savings down the line.

These issues will inform much of what he does on the domestic front. When the president, for example, announced that Chrysler was to merge with Fiat, he noted that Fiat has the technology needed to help Chrysler build cleaner-burning engines.

While battles broke out between the White House and Democrats over some of the details last month, the budget approved last week by the House and Senate nevertheless provides the basis for movement on Obama’s key priorities, including covering the uninsured, starting work on a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program and paving a path to college for all. Obama’s next task is to try to extract as favorable a conference report on the budget as possible.

The president is considering pursuing health care overhaul this year. The effort has already begun on Capitol Hill, with moves by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to put together plans.

But the White House has recently moved to downplay suggestions that it would seek a carbon emissions cap-and-trade system — a centerpiece of his energy and environmental agenda — this year. Nevertheless, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week indicated she wants to move this year.

Obama also has appointed a commission led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to consider tax-reform ideas. The panel is to report back in December, so tax reform is for next year at the earliest.

Obama’s removal of General Motors CEO Richard Wagoner — and the deep involvement of administration officials in the company’s restructuring in return for a financial lifeline — demonstrates a willingness to become involved directly in the affairs of private companies that may be unprecedented for a president.

Obama justifies the intervention on the need for bold action to rescue companies on which the broader economy depends. But some Republicans wonder whether the administration will be willing to release its hold — and stop seizing companies — once conditions begin to improve.

The administration has signaled that more such interventions may be on the way. Officials are currently performing “stress tests— on banks to determine their health. The same justification for diving into the affairs of the carmakers could be used for financial institutions that are also receiving billions from the government and fail the stress tests.

But beyond that, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is seeking powers to regulate non-bank financial institutions.

Obama has been relatively silent on terrorism, the issue that consumed Bush and his presidency. Obama mentioned the effort against al-Qaida during an event in Germany as a top priority, linking it to another goal — a nuclear arms deal with Russia.

“I would like to be able to say that as a consequence of my work, that we drastically lessened the threat of not only terrorism but also nuclear terrorism,— Obama said.

Whether the receding threat to the economy or an adverse world event provokes Obama to step up his public focus on terrorism remains to be seen.

Also uncertain is the future of Obama’s outreach to Republicans, which began with great fanfare in the early days of his administration. Republicans say they have trouble backing the president because they just don’t agree with his policies. The White House says they’re wedded to business as usual.

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