WASHINGTON—On the last Friday in March, President Barack Obama summoned leaders of the banking industry to the White House, where they gathered around a mahogany table in the State Dining Room, site of many a feast. On this day there was not a piece of fruit nor can of soda in sight. At each place was a glass of water. No ice. No refills.
The president's message was hard and crusty as a slab of day-old bread.He urged the businessmen to view corporate excess through the eyes of Americans who are belt-tightening their way through the recession. Obama mentioned the carpet stains in the Oval Office, to make a frugal comparison with $1 million executive suites decorated with $8,000 trash cans.
Direct, assertive and utterly self-assured, Obama has used his broad popularity, a driving ambition and sweeping agenda to move America in a wholly new direction.
Just shy of 100 days in office, he has ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison and a troop withdrawal from Iraq, made it easier for women to sue for job discrimination, reversed a ban on stem cell research, extended health care to millions of children, ousted the head of General Motors, reached out to the Muslim world, moved to ease tensions with Cuba, traveled to Europe and Latin America, and set aside huge tracts of wilderness for federal protection.
More broadly, Obama has seized on the worst economic crisis since the 1930s -- exploiting it, critics say -- and set out to reshape major aspects of everyday life: the price we pay to see a doctor, the size of our children's classrooms, the fuel we put in our cars.
If Obama's history-making campaign offered hope, the Obama administration has delivered audacity; his vision of an activist government has been so vast, Washington now guarantees not only savings accounts but bad brakes on a Buick.
"You can carp and gripe," said Allan Lichtman, a historian at Washington's American University. "But you really have to go back as far as Franklin Roosevelt for this much coming out of a newly elected president."
Whether dealing with imperious bankers or Somali pirates, Obama as chief executive looks a lot like Obama the candidate: the calmest one at the table, ribbing stressed-out aides and sipping bottled water as his lieutenants guzzle caffeine.
Not that his performance was always so smooth.
After a quick start, a series of controversies slowed hiring for the administration, leaving hundreds of desks vacant and phones unanswered; it took three tries to land a Commerce Department secretary. The Treasury Department's Timothy F. Geithner, the point man on the economy, relied on holdovers from the Bush administration to shape Obama's policies, and botched his debut so badly that he helped send financial markets off a cliff.
For a man who considers himself a good listener, Obama sometimes appeared tone-deaf, underestimating public disgust with a would-be health care czar who rode around Washington in a chauffeured Cadillac and failed to pay taxes on his perks. He was slow to detect the populist backlash brewing when tens of millions in taxpayer-funded bonuses went to executives who helped tank the economy.
At times, the nation's orator in chief struggled to find the right tone -- sometimes too grim, sometimes too glib -- when talking to a country that needed to hear both hard truths and gentle reassurance.
When Obama's agenda threatened to hit a wall inside the Washington Beltway, he took to the road -- reporters in tow -- to soak up support from friendly, campaign-style crowds.
But more important than personal adulation was something else Americans seemed willing to give their young president, something apparent in robust poll numbers and a recognition that things weren't going to improve overnight. The country was willing to be patient.
On Jan. 21, the first full day of the Obama administration, the president stepped into the Oval Office at 8:35 a.m. He spent the first 10 minutes alone, reading a private note that former President George W. Bush had left behind: "To: #44, From: #43." Then, wearing a starched white shirt, sky-blue tie and no jacket -- his would be a less formal White House -- Obama went to work behind Bush's old desk.
Obama moved quickly to assert himself and begin reordering policies at home and abroad. The media, always a bit fawning over a new chief executive, breathlessly chronicled Obama's every move.
Republicans were less impressed.
Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent had been to White House events before, but never one like Obama's Super Bowl bash. There was a Wii in the East Wing and kids running all over. The president circulated with plates of brownies and warm cookies. When Dent's son and a friend needed to use the bathroom, they asked the guy with the cookies for directions. "How should I know?" Obama joked. "I've only been here 10 days."