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Local reviews of Obama reflect mix of caution, hope

America’s ship of state is on a voyage of discovery.

Barack Obama’s presidency is itself unprecedented and the current economic storm has driven the country onto a course less traveled.

It’s going to be a long, strange trip, apparently, so the first 100-day span of Obama’s presidency is just the beginning.

“Given the problems that President Obama has to deal with in today’s world, I think 100 days is much too early to judge,” Columbus Bank & Trust President Steve Melton said when asked how the president’s doing so far.

The future of the economy, and the ultimate effect of how the government’s handling it, are hard to gauge now.

“It’s not just banking, but any industry,” Melton said. “Look at the car industry. We’re all in literally unchartered waters.”

Caught between war and recession, Obama on this odyssey is expected to tack to calmer waters as quickly as he can. But no one knows what’s beyond the horizon.

“You can’t look at what’s happened historically and project into the future anymore, so it is difficult for us to navigate right now,” Melton said.

“But this is a cycle we’re going through. It will all come back around.”

And with anticipated growth at Fort Benning and area business expansions, Columbus may come around and sail clear off the economic vortex before the rest of the country.

“It’s keeping your eyes on the horizon,” Melton said. “It’s a little farther out than we’d like for it to be. I think the next 12 months are still going to be very difficult.”

A new direction

“I think President Obama seems to be a very bright, likable person, who on the surface appears to be willing to listen to people, and all those things are a very welcome change from his predecessor,” said Richard Ault, a professor of economics at Auburn University.

“On the other hand, he’s a relatively inexperienced person with very little track record, and to me, a somewhat disturbing tendency to believe in what I sort of consider to be ‘New Deal’ type policies. I don’t think we’ve given him time to show his real strengths or real colors, whichever the case may be,” he said.

“I will say that the economy is not in as bad a shape right now as I feared it would be,” Ault said.

“And I think some of that can be credited to the Obama administration, because in contrast to the Bush administration, they seem to demonstrate some level of involvement and even competence.”

Georgia state Sen. Emanuel Jones, who owns the Legacy Automotive Group that includes Legacy Chevrolet in Columbus, gave the president high marks overall.

“I give him an A-plus,” Jones said. “He had a very, very difficult transition — probably much more so than any other president in recent history. He has been able to inspire hope. He has been able to push through some critical legislation.

“Once the full impact of the stimulus money kicks in, you will see the country start coming out of this deep recession.”

Jones was not as effusive about Obama’s handling of U.S. car manufacturers.

“When it comes to the automotive industry, I would have to give the president a B-minus,” he said. “That industry is going to be tough for anyone to get their arms around. The challenges that Chrysler and General Motors face are deep. There is no political will from the public to do more than has already been done. He is doing the best he can. We are headed down a path to bankruptcy and that is a lose-lose situation for the industry, lose-lose for the customers and lose-lose for the manufacturers. But there is still hope.”

Also hopeful was former Columbus Mayor Bob Poydasheff, an attorney and a retired Army colonel who served in the Judge Advocate General’s office.

“Something has to be done to get this economy geared up, and therefore I support wholeheartedly President Obama’s attempts,” Poydasheff said. “The key to me is priming the economic pump, but I would give him, if I was rating him, an incomplete because we don’t know how it’s going to play out. Like him, I feel it’s going to work and I see signs of improvement.”

Poydasheff said Obama was wise to act quickly to prevent the failure of major banks and carmakers. But no one knows if or when his bailout packages, in the billions of dollars, will begin to boost the economy.

Around the world

Overall, Poydasheff said Obama is “out there taking over the helm of leadership — he has control of his administration, which is very important. He’s not floundering.”

Poydasheff called Obama’s Jan. 22 executive order to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “interesting.” The retired JAG officer said he understands the complex has long drawn pejorative reactions from nations around the world for its questionable interrogation tactics.

Critics of the president’s plan say the administration has yet to reveal what it plans to do with the prisoners once the facility closes.

Poydasheff echoed that: “If you want to close Guantanamo, fine, but the key question is, where are you going to put the prisoners and what prisoners are you going to funnel out or maintain?”

As for the continuing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, Poydasheff approved of the president’s plan to withdraw American forces from Iraq by late 2011 and shift the focus to the war in Afghanistan.

“I think he is absolutely correct,” Poydasheff said. “What I would like to see is a coterie of our people to remain in Iraq in order to continue training the Iraqi forces, the police and the regular army.”

Of Iraqi President Nouri Maliki, Poydasheff said: “I expect that President Maliki is going to have to do a heck of a lot by himself. The government is going to have to start ameliorating and compromising with the Sunnis and the Shias.”

He added: “As long as our soldiers are given the best and greatest protection, I’m a happy camper.”

Tom Dolan, a professor of political science at Columbus State University, said Obama’s first days in office appear to have been hard and long.

“As far as President Obama’s first hundred days, he’s been busy,” Dolan said. “And there’s no end in sight for the things he’s going to be facing. He’s made an awful lot of promises. He’s backed off on some of those promises.”

One was his promise during his campaign to describe as “genocide” the massacre of Armenians by Turkey’s Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923.

Obama apparently was compelled to drop that for fear of alienating a crucial ally bordering Iraq and Afghanistan.

“He had promised that he was going to call it genocide, but he backed off in view of the reality of Turkey being a NATO ally, and also Turkey is trying to get into the European Union and I guess here the plans are that as we pull out of Iraq, we want to go through Turkey, but only if Turkey lets us, so he can’t antagonize them,” Dolan said.

“It’s a whole lot easier when you’re not the president, and the reality is that he’s learned an awful lot about the limitations of his power.”

Dolan declined to give the president a letter grade. “He’s a work in progress,” the professor said. “It’s been a hundred days. He’s got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds more.”

Home again

Environmentalists like Bill Edwards, formerly the executive director of Chattahoochee RiverWatch and still a volunteer for the watchdog group, have felt a surge of optimism since Obama took charge.

“I think his choices of appointments are outstanding, as far as Ms. Jackson at EPA,” Edwards said of Lisa Jackson, who promised in her confirmation hearing as Environmental Protection Agency director that agency policy would be guided by science, not politics.

“It’s amazing that already they have picked up the ball that the Supreme Court put on the table two years ago, that carbon dioxide is a pollutant,” Edwards said of the greenhouse gas that is believed to accelerate climate change. “They’re handling it very adroitly politically. Basically they’re giving Congress an opportunity to deal with it legislatively before EPA tries to get in and enact rules and regulations about carbon dioxide emissions and the Clean Air Act.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the EPA has the authority to regulate gases that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. George W. Bush’s administration had maintained the agency lacked that power.

The Obama administration’s new direction is “not going to have an instantaneous effect,” Edwards said, “but we were dealing with an administration before that denied it existed.”

Edwards said he also expects Obama to appoint more moderate federal court judges to ensure their confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

Home economics

Here it’s hard to tell how Obama’s policies will affect the local housing market, said Craig Greenhaw, president of the Greater Columbus Homebuilders Association.

“It’s too early to tell if any of his policies have had any impact on our local market because all real estate is a local market, and it’s been fairly steady and things seem to be picking up a little bit.”

Locally, those in the building and real estate business hope the Army’s Base Realignment and Closure process, that’s to bring about 30,000 newcomers to Fort Benning, will be a big boost as will the new Kia plant in West Point, Ga.

“We’re looking to see what happens with BRAC, and the timing on that, and Kia and other local market conditions that will have more of an impact,” said Greenhaw, of Greenhaw & Mitchell Contractors.

Columbus City Manager Isaiah Hugley said he could not offer a review of Obama’s first 100 days, lest it appear he spoke for the mayor and council. But he could talk about the federal economic stimulus money the city’s getting.

“We’ve applied for $82 million in stimulus funding and we’ve been confirmed to receive approximately $10 million,” he said. “That money is critical to our city.”

The city’s to get funds to address homelessness and to provide jobs and training, plus money for public transit and grants for juvenile justice and other programs.

“The money is going toward things that we would not have been able to do had that money not come through,” Hugley said.

“So we think that the money, for us, absolutely is going to stimulate the local economy. It’s going to put people back to work or sustain jobs…. We hope that we’re able to get more of the $82 million we applied for, because of the positive impact it’s going to have on us locally.”

It appears the state of Georgia will get about $1.6 billion in federal stimulus funds for education. Muscogee School Superintendent Susan Andrews said the local district in 2010 particularly will need federal “stabilization” funds that has more flexibility in spending. “We’re grateful to be getting that,” she said. “We could have a mass layoff without it.”

She could think of no major changes in education policy Obama has instituted, though educators have been hoping to see some changes in Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act.”

“We were hoping to see some movement on that right away,” she said.

Instead they also will have to wait to see what lies ahead.

Staff writers Lily Gordon, Sara Pauff and Chuck Williams contributed to this report.

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