Obama urges fast action on economic package

The Baltimore Sun

CHICAGO - With the world suddenly hanging on his every word, Barack Obama answered questions yesterday for the first time as president-elect, speaking cautiously about a skittish economy and joking that his family's discussion of a new puppy had become "a major issue."

But he wasn't careful enough on another subject, making an ill-considered comment about seances and former first lady Nancy Reagan, for which he later issued a personal apology.

Meeting with reporters, Obama sought to reassure the nation and world that the financial crisis has his full attention, while delicately trying to bridge the transition from the current presidency to his own.

"Oh, wow," Obama said, as he walked into a basement ballroom in the Hilton Chicago, expressing surprise at the tradition of reporters standing when a president or president-elect walks into a room.

Obama urged the lame-duck session of Congress to swiftly pass an economic stimulus package. If that does not happen before he takes office, he said it would be a top priority after moving into the White House.

But the Illinois Democrat also tried to make the case that he did not plan to be confrontational with the current administration and a president who was so frequently the target of his attacks on the campaign trail.

"The United States has only one government and one president at a time," he said. "And until Jan. 20th of next year, that government is the current administration."

White House visit

Obama said he was looking forward to a trip Monday to visit President Bush at the White House and a "substantive discussion."

"I'm going to go in there with a spirit of bipartisanship and a sense that both the president and various leaders of Congress all recognize the severity of the situation right now and want to get stuff done," he said.

Obama was flanked by Sen. Joe Biden, the soon-to-be vice president, and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago congressman who will be the White House chief of staff. He also brought with him a football team's worth of economic advisers, a group he had met with earlier.

On a day when the stock market headed higher but a new report showed that the economy lost 240,000 jobs in October, Obama stressed that the road ahead for him and the nation would not be easy.

"I do not underestimate the enormity of the task that lies ahead," he said. "Some of the choices that we make are going to be difficult."

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."

The 19-minute appearance was workmanlike and to the point, with Obama calibrating his remarks carefully and largely repeating campaign positions.

He was his usual serious self, although he did joke a couple of times.

Obama sidestepped any detailed discussion of a congratulatory letter he received from Iran's president, instead reiterating well-honed campaign statements that Iran's development of nuclear weapons and support for terrorism were unacceptable.

He maintained that presidents - even in their first 100 days - can help the economy get better.

"A new president can do an enormous amount to restore confidence, to move an agenda forward that speaks to the needs of the economy and the needs of middle-class families all across the country," he said.

Stimulus package

The stimulus package he wants would, among other things, extend unemployment benefits and provide money for public works to rebuild the nation's infrastructure, plus provide financial assistance to state and local governments. It may include provisions to help improve access to credit by consumers and boost the troubled auto industry.

After already backing two costly stimulus initiatives this election year, the White House and congressional Republicans are now resisting a new one.

Some economists have said that it would need to be anywhere between $150 billion and $300 billion to have a significant economic impact.

Obama vowed that the sagging economy would not slow him down on the aggressive and expansive domestic agenda that he campaigned on.

"Some of the choices that we're going to make are going to be difficult," he said. "It is not going to be quick. It is not going to be easy for us to dig ourselves out of the hole that we are in." But he said he was confident the country could do it.

Obama left the door open to the possibility that economic conditions might prompt him to change his tax plan, which 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.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said the House wouldn't reconvene for a postelection session unless Bush did an about-face and dropped his opposition. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he wasn't sure such a package could get through the Senate, either.

"Clearly there's no point in us doing something if the administration's going to take a position that they're not going to sign something," Hoyer said.

If Congress and Bush can't come to terms on a stimulus bill this fall, lawmakers have spoken with Obama's team about a Plan B: 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.

Obama said he would not be rushed into filling out his Cabinet choices. "There is no doubt that people want to know who is going to make up our team. I want to move with all deliberate haste, but I want to emphasize deliberate as well as haste," he said.

Gaffe and apology

He has reached out to former presidents for advice in the transition process, Obama said, joking that the list included only the ones that are still living.

"I didn't want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any seances," he said.

An Obama spokeswoman said the president-elect called the former first lady after the news conference to apologize for "the careless and off-handed remark."

Obama also touched on what is shaping up to be one of the highest-profile matters of his transition: the selection of a dog that he promised his daughters after the campaign.

"This is a major issue," he said. "We have two criteria that have to be reconciled." Obama said his daughter Malia is allergic to dogs, so the animal will have to be hypoallergenic.

"Our preference is to get a shelter dog," Obama said. "But a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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