Obama's Day One: Church, then advisers

January 21, 2009 9:17:54 PM PST
President Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office for the first time as chief executive on Wednesday and summoned economic advisers and top military officials to separate meetings aimed at delivering the change he promised as a candidate.LINK: http://www.whitehouse.gov 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.

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, Army Col. Patrick Parrish, 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.

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 PresidentBill 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 Tim 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 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.

A new poll underscored the sense of anticipation that accompanied Obama into office.

The Associated Press-Knowledge Networks survey found that by a 3-1 margin, people feel more optimistic about the country's future now that Obama has been inaugurated, including 30 percent of Republicans.

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 a second, $350 billion 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.

"Fortunately, we've seen Congress immediately start working on the economic recovery package, getting that passed and putting people back to work," Obama said in an ABC News interview. "That's going to be the thing we'll be most focused on."

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."

The two unfinished wars are twinned for Obama. He has promised to bring U.S. combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office, as long as doing so wouldn't endanger either the Americans left behind for training and terrorism-fighting nor the security gains in Iraq. And he has said he would use that drawdown to bolster the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, where U.S.-backed fighters are losing ground against a resurgent Taliban.

Among the possibilities for early executive actions are: the naming of a Middle East envoy, critical at a time of renewed hostilities between Israelis and the Palestinians; an order closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, a move that will take considerable time to execute and comes on the heels of a suspension of war crimes trials there pending a review; prohibiting - in most cases - the harsh interrogation techniques for suspected terrorists that have damaged the U.S. image around the globe; overturning the so-called Mexico City policy that forbids U.S. funding for family planning programs that offer abortion, and lifting President George W. Bush's limit on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

But Gibbs said that most such substantive executive orders will probably wait until Thursday or later. The push on Wednesday will be to issue orders making clear Obama's intention to hold all White House staff to high ethics standards and to start delivering on the pledge of making his administration more transparent to Americans.


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