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President Barack Obama is turning from the star-studded, crowd-pleasing pomp of his inauguration to the workaday task of governing a hurting nation of 304 million and meeting the soaring expectations that he and others have put on his shoulders. Twin crises of the economy and Iraq figured to take center stage Wednesday, Day One for the new administration.
“Tonight, we celebrate. Tomorrow, the work begins,” Obama declared Tuesday night at the Commander in Chief Ball, one of 10 official black-tie celebrations that kept him up late into the night. The first full day of the Obama presidency promised to be packed, at the White House and on Capitol Hill. It also promised to reveal much about how Obama intends to govern for the next four years, in style and substance.
Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue now are controlled by Democrats, providing a chance for the Obama administration to succeed if he and fellow lawmakers of the same party can work in concert effectively and if divergent Democratic interest groups don’t pull the new president in too many directions.
The capstone to four days of inaugural festivities takes place at the Washington National Cathedral on Wednesday morning, with a national prayer service that is a tradition dating to George Washington’s time. Obama and his wife, Michelle, were to welcome hundreds of members of the public to a White House open house, part of his pledge to make government and those who govern more accessible.
A meeting with his economic team was planned to assess his approach and plot the way forward. Taking over the White House with 11 million Americans out of work and trillions of dollars in stock market savings lost, Obama said turning around the limping economy is his first and greatest priority.
Congress already has given him a second installment of financial-industry bailout money, worth $350 billion, and is fast-tracking a massive economic stimulus bill of $825 billion or more. Even those bold measures, on top of hundreds of billions in other federal spending over recent months, may not be enough to prevent the recession from growing deeper.
“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 was featuring prominently in Obama’s first day as well.
He was convening senior commanders and top national security aides — including holdover Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen — to begin to make good on his pledge to, as he put it in his inaugural address, “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 home from 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. While Obama gets to work in earnest at the White House, Congress planned to do its part.
A Senate committee was going over a huge portion of Obama’s economic revival package. On the other side of the Capitol, the House planned a vote on legislation setting conditions on Obama’s use of the new infusion of financial bailout money. Work on getting the Obama administration fully staffed was also proceeding.
Within hours of Obama assuming the presidency, the Senate approved six members of his Cabinet. His choice of Hillary Rodham Clinton to be secretary of state awaited Senate action Wednesday, her confirmation held up for a day by Republican concern over the foundation fundraising of her husband, the former president.
Also left unconfirmed was Timothy Geithner, the nominee to head the Treasury Department. He faces the Senate Finance Committee, also Wednesday, where he will have to explain his initial failure to pay payroll taxes he owed while working for the International Monetary Fund. The Senate Judiciary Committee could take up the question of Eric Holder for Obama’s attorney general. The new president signaled that a flurry of executive actions, studied and prepared during his two-month-plus transition, will come quickly too.
Among the possibilities for the first day was 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, Cuba, 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.
Preventative action was taken Tuesday already. New White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel ordered all federal agencies to put the brakes on any pending regulations that the Bush administration tried to push through in its waning days.
On the slightly more distant horizon, but part of the immediate workload, were the early February due date for sending the outlines of Obama’s first budget request to Capitol Hill and plans for a State of the Union-like speech within weeks to a joint session of Congress.
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