At Press Conference, Obama Cites Problems, Refers Vaguely to Solutions


In his first, brief meeting with the press, a low-key President-elect proceeded with extreme caution, responding very generally to some questions and evading others. We still don’t know what kind of dog he’s getting the kids. The most substantive bits were a strong stand on Iran, an indication that “job growth” would be the number-one driver of his tax plan, and an assertion that a stimulus package would be “the first thing I get done” if it isn’t ready when he is sworn in.

Obama said Americans face “the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime,” then quickly reminded everyone that the President was still Bush, whom he also thanked for his invitation to the White House on Monday.

Obama said he will confront the crisis “head-on” with the help of his transition team and Joe Biden. He promised a “strong set of policies” under four extremely rough headings, most details of which remain undisclosed.

First, on the economy Obama promised “immediate efforts to create jobs and provide relief” to citizens, including extension of unemployment benefits and a fiscal stimulus plan. Second, he said he would work toward a “global response” to the financial crisis, with an eye to its effect on the domestic economy; he mentioned the “hardship” of the auto industry and those who rely on it, and as it is the “backbone of our manufacturing industry” he will “work on additional policy options” to supplement what Congress has done for it already.

Third, he will make sure the bailout is “not unduly rewarding” top management of financial firms, and will use HUD to help families “avoid foreclosure and stay in their homes.” Fourth, he said America “cannot afford to wait” to address clean energy, healthcare, tax relief and other such issues, and his team will work on those.

On the lowering-expectations tip, he advised we “do not underestimate the enormity of the task that lies ahead,” and that “some choices will be difficult… it is not going to be quick and it is not going to be easy to dig ourselves out of the hole that we are in.” But he is “confident” that the government can get it done if we “put aside partisanship.”

In Q&A, Nedra Pickler asked how far Obama was willing to go to effect his policies. “A new president can do an enormous amount,” said Obama, and added that we “need to see a financial stimulus package passed either before or after the Inauguration” with a “focus on jobs.” Also he would be willing to “provide assistance to state and local governments” to make sure it works.

Asked about the stimulus package, Obama said he would prefer it “sooner rather than later,” and if it were not done in the “lame-duck session” of Congress it will be “the first thing I get done as President of the United States.”

Someone asked about the letter he had received from Iran’s President Ahmedijad, and how soon he would send envoys to that country as well as to Syria, Venezuela, and Cuba. Obama evaded the last part of the question, and was cagey about the first: He was “aware that the letter was sent”; he will “be reviewing it” and won’t respond in a “knee-jerk fashion.” He added that Iran’s alleged development of a nuclear weapon “I believe is unacceptable,” as are Iran’s” “terrorist organizations,” and he pledged to the “international effort” against both. He reminded the reporter that it had only been three days since the election, and that Bush is still President. He didn’t say anything about envoys.

Asked if he planned to “challenge” or “confront” Bush at the Monday meeting, Obama said he expected a “substantive conversation” and was “not going to anticipate problems.” He had a “sense that both the President and the leaders of Congress understand the severity of the situation” and want to “get things done,” though he expects differences both between the parties and within his own. “Now’s a good time to set politics aside for a while,” he added, “and it’s in that spirit that I will have that conservation with the President.”

What’s up with the cabinet, someone wanted to know. “When we have an announcement, we will make them,” said Obama, and till then would “move with all deliberate haste,” an old joke at which no one laughed. He said that with the selection of the Vice President and the Chief of Staff “we did it right,” and it was better “not to be so rushed you end up making mistakes.”

Obama’s “hometown” reporter John McCormick (Tribune) asked about his replacement in the Senate. Obama said it was the Governor’s decision and his own criteria would be the same as if he were a voter (which we thought he was): someone who would help Illinois citizens “meet their dreams.”

He asked Lynn Sweet “What happened to your arm?” which was in a sling; she said she banged it running to Obama’s victory party. Obama observed it was the only serious incident reported that night (proving, as we suspected, that he doesn’t read Runnin’ Scared). Sweet pressed on with a question about counsel from other U.S. Presidents. Obama said he’d spoken to all former “living” Presidents — “I don’t want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about doing any seances” — who were all “very gracious.” He is also reading Lincoln.

Asked the inevitable personal question, he said that “with respect to the dog, there are two criteria that have to be reconciled” — he wanted a shelter dog, but one of his daughters is allergic, so the dog “has to be hypoallergenic,” and “shelter dogs are mutts like me.” (No laughs from the Fourth Estate.) Regarding schools, he said he and Michelle were “scouting it out.”

Pressed on his findings so far on U.S. intelligence, Obama said “If there was something I’d heard, I couldn’t tell you,” but he has received intelligence briefings and feels our intelligence “has gotten better” but can “always improve.” Asked if any of his briefings had “given him pause” he said, “I’m gonna skip that.”

Taxes were mentioned, with special attention as to who would be exempt from his proposed cuts. Obama was evasive. “My plan represented a net tax cut,” he said, granting relief to “95 percent of working Americans,” but including “cuts in capital gains taxes.” The motivation of the plan, he said, was “job growth.” He thinks the plan “is the right one” but he will “be taking a look at the data” to make sure it offers not only “relief,” but also a “boost” to the economy.

And with that he thanked the press and took off.