CHICAGO (AP) – The financial crisis dominated the first news conference held by President-elect Barack Obama, who assembled his economic team and called on Congress to pass an economic stimulus program.
Inheriting an economy in peril, Obama spoke confidently yet soberly in a setting far different from the Tuesday night rally celebrating his historic victory as the first African-American elected president of the United States. He warned that the nation faces the challenge of a lifetime and pledged he would act to help Americans devastated by lost jobs, disappearing savings and homes seized in foreclosure. But the man who promised change cautioned against hopes of quick solutions.
“It is not going to be easy for us to dig ourselves out of the hole that we are in,” he said.
Behind Obama were over a dozen economic luminaries, such as Lawrence Summers who was treasury secretary under the Clinton administration and has been mentioned as a possible choice for the same post in the Obama administration.
Obama, who was flanked by his new White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, offered no hints about who would get the job, but said cabinet positions would be chosen with “deliberate haste.”
The No. 1 priority, Obama said, is to get Congress to approve an economic stimulus plan that would extend jobless benefits, send food aid to the poor, and spend tens of billions of dollars on public works projects. If the plan is not approved this month, in a special session of Congress, Obama said that “it will be the first thing I get done as president of the United States.”
In his first appearance since a jubilant election-night celebration after beating Republican John McCain, Obama sought to project an air of calm and reassurance to a deeply worried nation. He stood in a presidential-like setting with an array of eight American flags and a lectern showing a presidential seal above the words “The Office of the President Elect.”
At one point, Obama flashed some self-deprecating humor while answering a question about a pet dog he has promised his daughters to smooth their move to Washington. He said his family is looking for one that will not trigger his daughter Malia’s allergies. Ideally, he said it would come from an animal rescue shelter, but “obviously, a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me.”
Obama, who will be the first black president, was using the American English word which describes a mixed-breed dog in referring to his own heritage: Obama’s father was from Kenya, his mother was from Kansas.
Another offhand comment at the news conference later elicited an apology from Obama. When telling reporters that he had spoken with all living former presidents as he prepares to take office, he smiled and said, “I didn’t want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about doing any seances.”
The 87-year-old former first lady had consulted with astrologers during her husband’s presidency, but she did not hold conversations with the dead.
Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said the president-elect later called Mrs. Reagan “to apologize for the careless and offhanded remark.”
Constrained by the fact he will not take office until Jan. 20, Obama deferred to President George W. Bush and his economic team on major decisions.
Obama said he appreciated the cooperation Bush has offered in smoothing his transition to the White House and the Republican’s “commitment that his economic policy team keep us informed.” He expressed gratitude to Bush for inviting him and his wife, Michelle, to the White House on Monday.
Obama declined to say how he would deal with Iran, whose president sent a letter of congratulations to Obama, saying he would not respond to issues “in a knee-jerk fashion.” A new jobless report offered no comfort. The U.S. unemployment rate climbed to a 14-year high in October,and 10.1 million Americans were out of work. In Detroit, General Motors reported a huge third-quarter loss and said it may run out of cash next year. Ford planned more job cuts after burning through billions of dollars of its own. While standing back as long as Bush is president, Obama said his advisers would keep close watch on the administration’s efforts to unlock frozen credit and stabilize financial markets. Obama said he wanted to make sure the Bush administration was “protecting taxpayers, helping homeowners and not unduly rewarding the management of financial firms that are receiving government assistance.”
Before the news conference, Obama and Vice-President elect Joe Biden met with their transition economic advisory board, a high-powered collection of business, academic and government leaders. They included Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, whose state has been hit hard by losses in the auto industry; Google CEO Eric Schmidt; and executives from Xerox Corp., Time Warner Inc.; and the Hyatt hotel company.
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett called in by telephone. “We are facing the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime, and we’re going to have to act swiftly to resolve it,” Obama said. He said he was confident that “a new president can have an enormous impact,” but he tempered that optimism by adding, “I do not underestimate the enormity of the task that lies ahead.”
Obama left the door open to the possibility that economic conditions might prompt him to change his tax plan that would give a break to most families but raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 annually.
“I think that the plan that we’ve put forward is the right one, but obviously over the next several weeks and months, we’re going to be continuing to take a look at the data and see what’s taking place in the economy as a whole,” Obama said.
Democratic congressional leaders want to pass a broad economic aid package in a postelection session later this month, but prospects appear dim because of Bush’s opposition.
If Congress and Bush can’t come to terms on a stimulus bill this fall, lawmakers have spoken with Obama’s team about a alternative: The new Congress could quickly pass an economic aid package when it reconvenes in early January, readying it for Obama’s signature as his first official act after being inaugurated, Democratic leadership aides said.
That measure would probably be just the first installment of a broader package, including a middle class tax cut, that Congress could pass separately after Obama is in the White House.