WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama sought to reassure Americans on Wednesday he was making progress tackling the economic crisis and in fixing the U.S. image abroad, but urged patience.
“We are off to a good start. But it is just a start,” Obama told a White House news conference as he assessed his first 100 days in office and promised to keep up the whirlwind pace. “I am pleased with our progress, but I am not satisfied.”
Buoyed by high public approval ratings, Obama focused on the jam-packed policy agenda he has pursued since his January 20 inauguration, topped by efforts to rescue the crippled economy and to repair U.S. relations with the rest of the world.
In just a few short months, Obama — a Democrat elected on a promise of sweeping change — has implemented sharp reversals from his Republican predecessor George W. Bush on issues ranging from the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to healthcare and climate change.
Supporters and critics alike filled the airwaves with conflicting assessments of Obama’s record so far, but most analysts said it was too early to judge whether his long list of initiatives would yield success.
Even though the White House had dismissed the 100-day marker as a symbolic point largely of interest to the media, it staged two events — a townhall meeting in Missouri and a prime-time televised news conference — for Obama to rally continued public support.
Citing approval by the Democratic-controlled Congress of his $3.4 trillion fiscal 2010 budget shortly before his news conference, Obama insisted that his policies had put the country on the right track but that there was more work to be done.
“But even as we clear away the wreckage of this recession, I have also said that we cannot go back to an economy that is built on a pile of sand,” he said in his opening statement at the news conference.
“I also campaigned on the promise that I would change the direction of our nation’s foreign policy and we’ve begun to do that as well,” Obama said.
He cited new strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan and his order to close the internationally condemned military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and to halt harsh interrogation methods for terrorism suspects.
Obama was pressed on whether he believed waterboarding, a now-banned interrogation method that simulates drowning and was used under the Bush administration, amounted to torture as human rights groups assert. He said, “I do believe it is torture.”
Obama also weighed in on the deteriorating situation in Pakistan amid growing U.S. concern about Islamabad’s efforts to fight an advancing Taliban insurgency.
He said he was confident about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal but was “gravely concerned” about conditions there because of its weak government.
Defending his plan for winding down the unpopular six-year war in Iraq, Obama said a string of deadly bombings in Iraq are a cause for concern but that such incidents are low compared to a year ago. He expressed confidence in the Iraqi government.
Obama also assured Americans his administration was ready to do whatever it takes in response to a growing swine flu outbreak that has presented him with his first public health emergency.
Obama aides are mindful of the political damage to Bush over the government’s inept handling of the devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Obama’s 100-day mark was further clouded by growing questions about Chrysler and General Motors, with the administration seeking ways to retool the troubled U.S. automakers for survival.
He said he was very hopeful that Chrysler LLC would again become viable, but it remained unclear if the company would seek bankruptcy.[nN29464253]
The tradition of marking the first 100 days of U.S. presidencies dates back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who set the standard by putting in place the building blocks of his New Deal programs to pull the United States out of the Great Depression.
With his deliberative “no-drama Obama” style, the president has sought a balanced tone between harsh economic reality and a more hopeful future, which pollsters say has helped ease Americans’ anxieties in the midst of the worst economic crisis in decades.
Underscoring the difficulties Obama faces, new government data on Wednesday showed the economy contracted at a 6.1 percent annual rate in the first quarter, a steeper-than-expected decline.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, Jeff Mason, David Alexander and Ross Colvin; Editing by Frances Kerry