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A busy Day 1 for new leader

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - In his first full day in the White House, President Barack Obama pushed his top military advisers for a plan to withdraw combat troops from Iraq and, in an extraordinary exercise, took the oath of office a second time over concern about a miscue during his swearing-in.

Obama retook the oath before a handful of aides in the White House Map Room - 31 1/2 hours after he spoke the words on the West Front of the Capitol before more than a million people arrayed on the Mall. In the first go-round, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. botched the wording, deviating from the language in the Constitution. Following along, Obama repeated the mistake.

"Out of an abundance of caution," White House Counsel Greg Craig said in a statement, Obama decided to retake the oath at 7:35 p.m. yesterday. Roberts again presided.

In any case, Obama proceeded yesterday in true presidential style, mixing international diplomacy, ceremonial events and bureaucratic action. The 44th president arrived at the Oval Office at 8:35 a.m., after a late night dancing at the inaugural balls. Savoring the moment, he spent 10 minutes alone, reading the private note left to him by his predecessor in an enveloped marked "To: 44 from 43." But that was about the only quiet moment he got.

Tracking a campaign promise, the president spent part of the afternoon in a meeting with top military commanders running the war in Iraq. In a statement released afterward, Obama said he asked them to "engage in additional planning necessary to execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq."

On the campaign stump, Obama often pledged that on his first day as president he would call such a meeting. But then his language was more forceful. He typically said he would instruct the Pentagon it had a "new mission in Iraq:" ending the war and bringing all combat forces home within 16 months.

Officials briefed on the meeting afterward said Obama's goal remains the same: accelerating the troop withdrawal from Iraq. The discussion was amicable, with the president gently prodding the military to beef up planning for a quicker drawdown than they might have preferred.

Obama and military leaders are not far apart in their respective timetables. Obama has called for a withdrawal of all combat forces by mid-2010. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has crafted a plan for a more conservative drawdown, but one that would still remove most forces well before the end of 2011. In the new status of forces agreement, the U.S. has pledged to remove all military forces from Iraq in three years' time.

Obama was also focused on another war.

During the transition, Obama steadfastly refused to offer an opinion on the Israeli conflict in Gaza, noting there was only "one president at a time." On his first day, Gaza was very much on his mind. He placed calls to the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority to discuss Gaza and ways of making the cease-fire endure. He told them he wanted to stop weapons from being smuggled to Hamas as a step toward a permanent end to the fighting, according to the White House.

Obama also used Day 1 to signal his commitment to a central campaign promise: Upending the way Washington does business. He announced tough new restrictions on lobbying activity, while pledging to make government more transparent.

In a nod to the recession, he also said that the more than 100 administration aides earning more than $100,000 would have to forgo pay raises.

Speaking to his senior staff, Obama said, "However long we are keepers of the public trust we should never forget that we are here as public servants and public service is a privilege. It's not about advantaging yourself. It's not about advancing your friends or your corporate clients. It's not about advancing an ideological agenda or the special interests of any organization. Public service is, simply and absolutely, about advancing the interests of Americans."

As a condition for working for the Obama administration, his appointees must sign a pledge meant to disrupt the "revolving door" by which lobbyists flow seamlessly into government, and back into the lobbying business.

His aides are barred from lobbying any executive agency for the life of the Obama administration. That means an appointee who leaves the White House in, say, 2010, would be barred from lobbying the executive branch until 2017, if Obama were to serve two terms.

At present, officials who leave an agency or department can't go back and lobby their old offices for a period of at least one year.

"It's unprecedented," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonpartisan watchdog Democracy 21. "It basically protects citizens against individuals entering public service and then converting their public service to personal financial gain when they leave."

Lobbyists joining his administration must wait two years before they can take part in any issue on which they lobbied.

Obama also issued a trio of decrees intended to make government more transparent. The moves were applauded by historians, political scientists and lawyers who have been to court during the Bush presidency battling for access to executive branch records.

"This is big," said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archives, a nonprofit research institute at George Washington University that has filed lawsuits challenging Bush policy on the release of information. "No president has done so much on the first day in office to make his administration transparent."

The first Obama order effectively undid a Bush administration policy that had restricted the release of presidential documents, a rule that had been challenged in court by Fuchs' organization and by historians.

Bush's rule allowed former presidents and vice presidents - and their heirs - to cite executive privilege to block the release of documents after they left office. With his new order, Obama essentially threw out that rule, allowing only the current president to block the release of documents and depriving their heirs of that right.

The second Obama order is designed to reinvigorate the Freedom of Information Act. Open records advocates have complained that a memo by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2001 encouraged executive branch officials to delay or halt the release of documents requested under the law.

The third Obama memo attempts to instill a stronger spirit of openness in government. It directed executive branch employees to "operate under principles of openness, transparency and of engaging citizens with their government."

obama's early action

* Froze salaries of White House employees earning more than $100,000.

* Called Mideast leaders to push for peace.

* Met with top military and economic advisers.

* Established tighter ethics rules for administration officials and lobbying activities.

* Set new Freedom of Information Act rules.

Sources: Baltimore Sun News Services

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