(01-21) 04:00 PST Washington – — President Obama packed symbolism, ceremony and action in a whirlwind first day in office that began with a prayer service at the National Cathedral and ended with a closed meeting with military commanders at which he directed a reassessment of U.S. strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, a key campaign promise.
Despite a round of 10 inaugural balls that had Obama and first lady Michelle Obama returning to the White House around 1 a.m., the new president was up at dawn, issuing executive orders, calling Middle East leaders, appearing at public events and retaking the oath that was flubbed at his inauguration.
He seemed intent on riding his soaring poll numbers and public hunger for change to get his presidency off to a fast start, knowing that the first few months of a new administration are historically its most productive.
He telegraphed sharp breaks in policy and style from the Bush administration. Many seemed aimed both at appeasing a liberal base that has grated at his centrist Cabinet choices and at setting new standards of ethics and transparency to thwart a return of cynicism among the public. He is expected to move today to begin closing the Guantanamo Bay prison for terror detainees.
In between, Obama held discussions with economic advisers on how to rework the $700 billion bank rescue program to address an alarming new outbreak of distress among some U.S. banks. It amounts to the equivalent of doing engine work on a plane in flight. Obama advisers have been looking at alternatives for how to use the $350 billion remaining of the bank rescue fund known as TARP that ultimately could require more infusions from Congress.
Many things at once
Through it all, Obama demonstrated that, as he once coolly admonished former rival Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during the campaign, a president can handle more than one issue at a time. He held an open house at his new residence, attended the swearing-in of White House staff and took 10 minutes alone to read a note left to him from former President George W. Bush at his desk in the Oval Office titled “From #43 to #44.”
Washington has mostly returned to normal as maintenance crews worked through the night to remove road barriers and clear the heaps of trash that covered the downtown.
Lucky visitors to the open house included volunteers and people selected by Internet lottery to promote the theme of openness and accessibility.
Obama told one guest, “Enjoy yourself, roam around,” adding, “Don’t break anything.” Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, held a similar open house at the vice presidential home at the Naval Observatory.
Obama signed two executive orders and three presidential memoranda focused on increasing openness and improving ethics in the executive branch. Those froze the pay of White House staff earning more than $100,000 a year, restricted lobbying by officials who leave the administration, broadened compliance with open-records rules and lifted Bush’s restrictions on presidential records.
Obama said he aimed at “establishing firm rules of the road for my administration and all who serve in it and to help restore that faith in government.” He said administration officials should “never forget we are here as public servants, and public service is a privilege.”
Republicans engaged in early skirmishes over Cabinet nominees, but the pushback seemed more like efforts to demonstrate their relevance than any coherent strategy to respond to the new landscape.
Repudiated in back-to-back elections and facing a public, including many in their own party, that is coalescing around the new president, some Republicans are moving into a classic opposition mode, while others, like McCain, are clearly aiming to work with Obama to influence and shape legislation rather than block it.
A handful of Republican senators mounted impotent and admittedly symbolic offensives against three of his top Cabinet appointees, Treasury-secretary designate Timothy Geithner, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton and Attorney General-designate Eric Holder. Clinton was confirmed 94-2 later in the day after Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, blocked a move to confirm her by unanimous consent. Cornyn voted for her after questioning conflicts of interest posed by foreign donations to the foundation run by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
McCain has been closely courted by Obama, who has repeatedly consulted him since the election. McCain went to the Senate floor to ask his colleagues to let the new president get to work and join the new sense of unity in the country.
Geithner, who admitted errors on his tax returns but insisted they were unintentional, is expected to be confirmed as well; a committee vote is set for today. Republicans stalled the committee vote on Holder for a week over whether his office would prosecute U.S. intelligence agents for harsh interrogations of terror suspects and to demand more time to probe a nominee who is also expected to be confirmed.
House Republican leaders requested a meeting with Obama today to voice concerns about the $825 billion economic stimulus plan that is moving through two House committees this week. Led by Minority Leader John Boehner, the group wrote to Obama saying they want to present their ideas on the stimulus and “continue the dialogue” Obama began with them before his inauguration.
Obama has gone to unusual lengths to court Republicans since his election. While irritating liberals and some Democrats, the overtures have paid dividends. Even the most ardent conservatives have toned down their rhetoric, and many have said they believe Obama is sincere in wanting to work with them.
Obama made clear in his inaugural address that he wants to construct a new approach to governing that puts an end to “worn-out” ideological battles. If he succeeds in constructing a “smarter” government, he has the potential to create a potent new political coalition. Resistance from both ends of the political spectrum is inevitable, and his best opportunity to move his agenda is during these first critical months of his administration.
Discipline and focus
Given the public mood, Obama’s honeymoon promises to last longer than most. But all end eventually and can close unexpectedly with the intervention of outside events beyond a president’s control or as a result of political missteps. Obama on his first day seemed determined to move with the discipline and strategic focus he showed during his campaign.
“What a moment we’re in,” Obama told his new staff. “What an opportunity we have to change this country. And for those of us who have been in public life before, you know, these kinds of moments come around just every so often. The American people are really counting on us now.”
President Obama signed or was poised to approve several orders:
Guantanamo Bay: He is expected to sign an order today to close the U.S. prison in Cuba within a year and halt trials of prisoners there in the meantime.
Lobbying: He imposed new limits on lobbyists in the White House and froze the salaries of about 100 aides who make over $100,000.
Records: He ordered limits on the ability of former presidents to block the release of sensitive records of their time in the White House and said the federal government would reinterpret the Freedom of Information Act to increase transparency.
On hold: He froze all proposed federal rule changes left unfinished by George W. Bush’s administration. They relate to the Endangered Species Act, labor relations and other fields.
Source: Chronicle news services
E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at firstname.lastname@example.org.