Barack Obama says his presidency is an opportunity for the U.S. to renovate its relations with the Muslim world, starting the day of his inauguration and continuing with a speech he plans to deliver in an Islamic capital.
And when he takes the oath of office Jan. 20, he plans to be sworn in like every other president, using his full name: Barack Hussein Obama.
The world, he said, "is ready for that message."
In a wide-ranging interview with Tribune reporters, Obama discussed his strategy for his first year in office, vigorously defended his choice for attorney general and reflected on his role as the first African American to be elected president.
He also made it clear that, even as he plans his move to Washington, his heart will remain in Chicago. His "Kennebunkport" will be the South Side, Obama said, and he pledged to return at least every couple months for some family down time.
The conversation was his first with a newspaper since his election on Nov. 4, and it came just hours after Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested on a federal conspiracy complaint. The complaint alleges that Blagojevich essentially tried to auction off the appointment to replace Obama in the U.S. Senate, but the president-elect declined to speak about any discussions between his representatives and those of the governor, a fellow Democrat.
Obama said he never has spoken personally to Blagojevich about his possible replacement, either before or since his victory. Shortly after the interview ended Tuesday afternoon, Obama's transition office released a statement saying top adviser David Axelrod misspoke last month when he said Obama had talked with Blagojevich about the Senate vacancy.
Citing an "ongoing investigation" into the matter, Obama said he considered it "inappropriate" to talk further about the situation.
As the Blagojevich drama unfolded across Dearborn Street in the federal courthouse, Obama lounged in an armchair in his spare black-and-gray office, a scattering of peanut shells from his afternoon snack littering the floor.
Obama said the country must take advantage of a unique chance to recalibrate relations around the globe, through a new diplomacy that emphasizes inclusiveness and tolerance as well as an unflinching stand against terrorism.
"The message I want to send is that we will be unyielding in stamping out the terrorist extremism we saw in Mumbai," Obama said, adding that he plans to give a major address in an Islamic capital as part of his global outreach.
Though world events and economic winds have made his agenda all the more challenging, Obama kept close counsel on how he plans to move forward.
He would not commit to specific plans on matters as varied as free trade, unionization and illegal immigration. Instead, he said, his nominees and advisers are studying the issues and will report back with recommendations.
Asked if he would support the extension of the fence between the U.S. and Mexican border, Obama deferred to his nominee for the Homeland Security Department, Janet Napolitano.
In similar fashion, he sidestepped questions about whether he would move quickly on promises to rework the North American Free Trade Agreement or push the so-called "card-check" law making it easier for unions to organize.
"My economic team is going to put together a package on trade and on worker issues,'' he said. "That will be presented to me. I don't want to anticipate right now what sequences will be on these issues.''
Likewise, he offered no hints about future Cabinet appointments, but voiced strong support for Eric Holder, his nominee for attorney general, by batting away concerns about his role in the controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich at the end of Bill Clinton's presidency.
"Everybody who looks at his record says the guy was an outstanding attorney, an outstanding prosecutor, an outstanding judge, an outstanding number two at the Justice Department,'' Obama said. "And Eric has acknowledged the Rich pardon was a mistake on his part, not having caught that earlier.
MORE ON BARACK OBAMA
Barack Obama plans to reach out to Muslim world
In exclusive interview, he says he plans to be sworn in like every other president, using his full name: Barack Hussein Obama
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