January 22: On the second day after his inauguration, President Barack Obama issues three executive orders aimed at returning the U.S. to “the moral high ground” in the war on terror. He orders the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay closed within one year, and orders the closing of secret CIA prisons abroad. Obama also orders all interrogations by U.S. officials to follow the Army Field Manual, which forbids torture or harsh interrogation techniques. He also orders a review of all detention procedures and individual cases. His supporters call it a necessary step to restoring America’s stature around the world; critics say he is risking national security in the name of political correctness.
Feb. 17: Obama signs a US$787 billion stimulus bill and orders 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Every Republican in the House of Representatives had voted against the bill, and only three Republican senators voted in favour (one of them, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, switched parties on Tuesday to join the Democrats when it became clear his stimulus vote would cost him the next primary election). The legislation includes transfers to the states for health care, food stamps, and unemployment insurance, subsidies for health insurance for the unemployed, as well as spending on infrastructure such as highways and bridges, renewable energy, and incentives for buyers of cars and homes. The administration predicts the plan will save or create 3.5 million jobs; critics say it includes unnecessary spending and that much of the money will take too long to dispense. Obama subsequently includes a separate “foreclosure prevention” plan and additional bailouts for the financial sector. He says the measures are working and that he sees “glimmers of hope” for a recovery, but the economy continues to decline.
Feb 19: Obama travels to Ottawa for his first official foreign trip as president, where he discusses trade, strategy for Afghanistan, and cooperation on clean energy. He warns against the “strong impulse toward protectionism.” He also delights onlookers by buying a beaver tail on the Byward Market. Two months later, the Obama administration assuaged concerns in Ottawa when US trade representative, Ron Kirk, confirmed they would not seek to renegotiate NAFTA, despite Obama’s campaign rhetoric to the contrary. However, another Obama appointee caused a new bump in relations. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Natpolitano raised concerns by suggesting in an interview with the CBC on April 20 that some of the 9/11 hijackers came through Canada, though she later said she knew they did not come via Canada.
Feb. 26: Obama delivers an ambitious 10-year US$3.6 trillion budget to Congress that includes a variety of policy changes. It includes plans for a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions; large increases in funding for education; and creates a $630 billion fund for the establishment of a national health insurance system. The budget also allows tax cuts to expire for upper income earners. After acrimonious partisan debate in the Congress, lawmakers are now rushing to pass a spending package for fiscal year 2010 based on the budget into law.
Feb, 27: Obama announces a drawdown of the 142,000 US troops in Iraq. The end date for the US combat presence in Iraq will be August 31, 2010. After that date, remaining US forces will focus on training and advising Iraqi security forces. The move draws from plans presented to Obama by top US generals, and reflects his campaign promise to shift more troops and funding to the war in Afghanistan.
March 9: Obama issues an executive order reversing President George W. Bush’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Obama says his administration will make “scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.” (On January 23, Obama had lifted a Bush-era ban on federal funding for international non-governmental groups that perform or counsel abortions as part of family-planning activities overseas.)
March 31: Obama caps an 8-day trip to the UK, France, Germany, Czech Republic, and Turkey, with a surprise visit to Iraq. Obama and first lady Michelle are greeted enthusiastically by the public and foreign press. Despite modest concrete gains from the trip—more G-20 funding for the IMF, more non-military support for Afghanistan from NATO countries—America’s image abroad appears to be undergoing a rehabilitation. Obama’s earlier promise to extend an open hand to various foreign regimes has also received a positive response around the world, though have yet to result in progress on issues such as the nuclear programs of North Korea or Iran.
April 16: Over the objections of the CIA, Obama releases key legal memos from the Bush era outlining the Bush administration’s policy on interrogation methods. Obama says no CIA interrogators will be prosecuted. The documents lead to calls for investigations and prosecutions of Bush-era lawyers and senior officials under anti-torture laws. A few days later, Obama appears to reverse his opposition to such a move and says any decisions about prosecutions will be up to his attorney general, Eric Holder. Obama later says he opposes the creation of an independent commission to investigate the harsh interrogation techniques.
April 16-19: Obama travels to Mexico, where he discusses cooperating with Mexican authorities to deal with the violence along the US-Mexico border, and then to a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, where he shakes hands with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and announces a “new beginning” with Cuba. Obama subsequently lifts restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba and sending money to family members there.