Obama's Day One: recession, war, ethics
Published: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 at 4:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 at 4:44 p.m.
WASHINGTON (AP) — In a first-day flurry of activity, President Barack Obama set up shop in the Oval Office, summoned advisers to begin dealing with war and recession and ordered new ethics rules for "a clean break from business as usual."
He also froze salaries for top White House staff members, placed phone calls to Mideast leaders and had aides circulate a draft executive order that would close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay within a year.
"The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable," Obama said as he unveiled ethics rules that he portrayed as the fulfillment of a major campaign promise. He said the action was necessary "to help restore that faith in government without which we cannot deliver the changes we were sent here to make."
Devoting swift attention to the Mideast turmoil, Obama prepared to name George Mitchell, the former Senate Democratic leader, a special envoy to the region.
In his phone calls to Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders, Obama emphasized that he would work to consolidate the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, said the new White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs.
Gibbs said Obama expressed "his commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term."
The enormity of Obama's challenge on the economy was evident in the mixed messages coming from Capitol Hill.
Rep. David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, expressed doubt that the currently planned $825 billion economic stimulus package would be enough, calling the proposal "no silver bullet." At the same time, House Republicans requested a meeting with Obama to air their worries that the plan was too big.
A multi-denominational prayer service at Washington National Cathedral and an open house at the presidential mansion were also on the schedule of the 44th president, taking office on a promise to fix the battered economy and withdraw U.S. troops from the unpopular war in Iraq on a 16-month timetable.
At the open house, Obama and his wife, Michelle, shook hands with a line of guests streaming through the Blue Room, some of them moved to tears by the experience.
"Enjoy yourself, roam around," a smiling Obama told one guest as he passed through the room. "Don't break anything."
The shift in administrations — former President George W. Bush was back home in Texas — was underscored in far-off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where a judge granted Obama's request to suspend the war crimes trial of a young Canadian. The judge issued a one-sentence order for the 120-day continuance without so much as a hearing, possibly the beginning of the end for the former administration's system of trials for alleged terrorists.
A draft executive order made clear the new president intends to go further. It called for closing the facility within a year, releasing some of the 245 detainees still there and transferring others to different sites for trial.
Pushing back pre-emptively, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said the draft order raises difficult questions.
"The key question is where do you put these terrorists?" he said. "Do you bring them inside our borders? Do you release them back into the battlefield? ... Most local communities around America don't want dangerous terrorists imported into their neighborhoods, and I can't blame them."
Among Obama's executive orders:
—A freeze on salaries for White House staff earning $100,000 or more — about 100 people in all.
—New Freedom of Information Act rules, making it harder to keep the workings of government secret.
—Tighter ethics rules governing when administration officials can work on issues on which they previously lobbied governmental agencies, and banning them from lobbying the Obama administration after leaving government service.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama sat in the first row for Wednesday's invitation-only prayer service. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, joined them, as did former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., awaiting confirmation as secretary of state later in the day.
"Grant to Barack Obama, president of the United States, and to all in authority your grace and good will. Bless them with your heavenly gifts, give them wisdom and strength to know and to do your will," prayed the Rev. Andy Stanley, one of numerous clerics from several religions to speak.
Obama's first White House meetings as president meshed with quickened efforts in Congress to add top Cabinet officials to the roster of those confirmed on Tuesday and to advance the economic stimulus measure that is a top priority of his administration.
Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner, appearing before the Senate Finance Committee for a confirmation hearing, said enactment of the new president's economic stimulus was essential. He also said the Senate's decision last week to permit use of the second $350 billion installment of a financial industry bailout "will enable us to take the steps necessary to help get credit flowing."
He said Obama and he "share your belief that this program needs serious reform."
Geithner also apologized for his failure to pay personal taxes earlier in the decade, calling the omission a mistake. The taxes were repaid in stages, some after an IRS audit and the rest after a review of his returns late last year by Obama's transition team.
Obama and his wife arrived at the White House around 1 a.m. after attending 10 official inaugural balls.
Several hours later he walked into the most famous office in America for the first time as president.
The new White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said in a statement that Obama spent 10 minutes alone and read a note left for him by Bush that was in an envelope marked "To: ‥44, From: ‥43."
He was then joined by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and, several minutes later, the first lady.
Wednesday's meeting with economic advisers was coming at a time when 11 million Americans are out of work and millions more feel the loss of savings and face the prospect of foreclosures on their homes.
Last week, Congress cleared the way for use of the second installment of financial-industry bailout money, a pre-inaugural victory for Obama.
Democratic leaders hope to have the $825 billion economic stimulus measure to his desk by mid-February.
The war in Iraq that he has promised to end featured prominently in Obama's first day as well.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, were among those called in for the meeting as the new president assumed the role of commander in chief.
In his inaugural address on Tuesday, Obama said his goal was to "responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan."
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