Archive for the ‘Obama’s 1st 100 days’ Category

Editorial Cartoon: Obama’s Color

January 30, 2009

the-color-of-obama

He’s showing his color now.

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Vatican slams Obama over abortion fund

January 25, 2009

Agence France-Presse
First Posted 08:34:00 01/25/2009

Filed Under: Religions, Government, Churches (organisations), Obama Articles

VATICAN CITY – Senior Vatican officials weighed into US President Barack Obama Saturday for overturning a ban on state funding for family-planning groups that carry out or facilitate abortions overseas.

It is “the arrogance of someone who believes they are right, in signing a decree which will open the door to abortion and thus to the destruction of human life,” Archbishop Rino Fisichella was quoted as saying by the Corriere della Sera daily.

Fisichella is president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, one of a number of so-called pontifical academies which are formed by or under the direction of the Holy See.

“What is important is to know how to listen… without locking oneself into ideological visions with the arrogance of a person who, having the power, thinks they can decide on life and death,” he added.

His predecessor in the office, Elio Sgreccia, told the ANSA news agency, “Instead of all the good things that he might have done, Barack Obama has chosen the worst,” allowing “the massacre of innocents.”

“The right to life is the first of all rights that must be defended,” he said, claiming that 80 percent of Americans were against abortion.

Obama signed the executive order cancelling the eight-year-old restrictions imposed by his predecessor George W. Bush on Friday, the third full day of his presidency.

The so-called “global gag rule” cut off US funding to overseas family planning clinics which provide any abortion services whatsoever, from the operation itself to counselling, referrals or post-abortion services.

“If this is one of the first acts of President Obama, with all due respect, it seems to me that the path towards disappointment will have been very short,” Fisichella said.

“I do not believe that those who voted for him took into consideration ethical themes, which were astutely left aside during the election debate. The majority of the American population does not take the same position as the president and his team,” he added.

The order won Obama praise from Democratic lawmakers, family planning and women’s rights groups but drew angry condemnation from pro-life organizations and Republicans.

More than 250 health and human rights organizations from around the world sent Obama a letter, thanking him for ending a policy “which has contributed to the deaths and injuries of countless women and girls.”

The Roman Catholic Church has also criticized the approval of US authorities for the first human trials using embryonic stem cells of a therapy to help paralyzed patients regain movement.

The therapy has been developed using cells derived from an existing human embryonic stem cell line, created before August 9, 2001 when Bush banned using new lines of such cells for research.

Friday’s announcement by the Food and Drug Administration may mark the start of a shift in the nation’s stem cell research policy under Obama, who wants the ban overturned.

Embryonic stem cells are taken from early-stage embryos, which are destroyed in the process, prompting some religious groups to brand the process as unethical.

Fisichella charged Saturday that Obama “gave into pressure from multinationals.”

“The problem is not scientific it is ideological,” he said.

(ObamaWatch) Day 2 : Obama names peacemakers to hotspots in break with Bush

January 23, 2009

by Lachlan Carmichael

WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama on Thursday picked two high-powered peacemakers for the Middle East as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, in yet another swift break with Bush administration policy.

In an aggressive push for peace in the world’s most intractable hot spots, Obama named Northern Ireland mediator George Mitchell for the Middle East and Balkans broker Richard Holbrooke for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Flanked by the pair, Obama told US diplomats that he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton summoned the envoys to “convey our seriousness of purpose” in light of “the urgency and complexity of the challenges we face.”

Clinton, who led the State Department ceremony that was also attended by Vice President Joe Biden, added: “Anything short of relentless diplomatic efforts will fail to produce a lasting, sustainable peace in either place.”

The former US first lady said the State Department was “grateful” that Obama, on only his second day in office, was taking prompt action to deal with “two of the biggest foreign policy challenges of our time.”

Obama’s choice of two such respected envoys signaled a new engagement in global affairs by his administration — and another break with the policy of former president George W. Bush who resisted such a step.

The new president has also pledged to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba within a year.

However, there was little sign Obama would drop the Bush administration‘s hard line toward the Hamas Islamist movement when he backed Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip as a defensive move against Hamas rocket fire.

He called on Israel to open Gaza border crossings to aid and commerce to help ease the plight of Palestinians, but he made no mention of Jewish settlement building in the West Bank — a sore point for the Palestinians.

Obama said he was sending Mitchell to the region as soon as possible to help shore up a fragile ceasefire that took hold last weekend after a three-week Israeli offensive left more than 1,330 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

“It will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its Arab neighbours,” Obama said.

Mitchell said he did not “underestimate the difficulty” of his assignment.

Mitchell, a Maronite Catholic whose mother was Lebanese, managed to bring together the leaders of Northern Ireland‘s religious communities with a mixture of compromise and talks to sign the historic Good Friday agreement in 1998.

At the time Mitchell, a Democrat, was considered one of the only actors in the peace process enjoying the trust of all parties, earning a reputation in Belfast as a safe pair of hands and a shrewd, level-headed operator.

However, his efforts to help end the Israeli-Palestinian violence that erupted after the collapse in 2000 of the peace process brokered by president Bill Clinton proved fruitless.

Sallai Meridor, Israel’s ambassador in Washington welcomed Mitchell’s appointment.

“Israel holds Senator Mitchell in high regard and looks forward to working with him on taking the next steps toward realizing a future of peace and security for Israel and her neighbors,” Meridor said in a statement.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana also welcomed the naming of Mitchell, saying in a statement that he “looks forward to working very closely with the US Special Envoy Mitchell.”

Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Accords which ended the Bosnian war, will take on responsibility for implementing an integrated strategy to US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He acknowledged that Afghanistan and Pakistan were two “distinct” countries entwined by history and ethnic ties. “This is a very difficult assignment as we all know,” said Holbrooke.

Obama calls the war in Afghanistan, which also spills into Pakistan, as the “central front” in the war against terrorism, where the Taliban has come back from its ouster by the Bush administration in 2001 to wage a deadly insurgency.

He accused his predecessor of taking his “eye off the ball” by invading Iraq.

In taking charge of US foreign policy, Clinton proclaimed a “new era for America” based on robust diplomacy, and an end to the intra-government divisions that “paralyzed” US decision-making under the Bush administration.(YahooNews)

Obama breaks from Bush and orders Gitmo to close

January 23, 2009

By TOM RAUM and PHILIP ELLIOTT, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – Breaking forcefully with Bush anti-terror policies, President Barack Obama ordered major changes Thursday that he said would halt the torture of suspects, close down the Guantanamo detention center, ban secret CIA prisons overseas and fight terrorism “in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals.”

“We intend to win this fight. We’re going to win it on our terms,” Obama declared, turning U.S. policy abruptly on just his second full day in office. He also put a fresh emphasis on diplomacy, naming veteran troubleshooters for Middle East hotspots.

The policies and practices that Obama said he was reversing have been widely reviled overseas, by U.S. allies as well as in less-friendly Arab countries. President George W. Bush said the policies were necessary to protect the nation after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks — though he, too, had said he wanted Guantanamo closed at some point.

“A new era of American leadership is at hand,” Obama said.

Executive orders signed by the new president would order the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, shut within a year, require the closure of any remaining secret CIA “black site” prisons abroad and bar CIA interrogators of detainees from using harsh techniques already banned for military questioners.

That includes physical abuse such as waterboarding, a technique that creates the sensation of drowning and has been termed torture by critics at home and abroad.

For the signing ceremony, Obama was flanked in the Oval Office by retired senior U.S. military leaders who had pressed for the changes.

Underscoring the new administration’s point, the admirals and generals said in a statement: “President Obama’s actions today will restore the moral authority and strengthen the national security of the United States.”

Not everyone felt that way.

Criticism surfaced immediately from Republicans and others who said Obama’s policy changes would jeopardize U.S. ability to get intelligence about terrorist plans or to prevent attacks.

House Minority Leader John Boehner was among a group of GOP lawmakers who quickly introduced legislation seeking to bar federal courts from ordering Guantanamo detainees to be released into the United States.

Boehner, R-Ohio, said it “would be irresponsible to close this terrorist detainee facility” before answering such important questions as where the detainees would be sent.

Obama said he was certain that the nation’s security is strengthened — not weakened — when the U.S. adheres to “core standards of conduct.”

“We think that it is precisely our ideals that give us the strength and the moral high ground to be able to effectively deal with the unthinking violence that we see emanating from terrorist organizations around the world,” he said.

“We don’t torture,” Obama said, but Bush had said the same. The question has always been defining the word.

Later in the day, Obama visited the State Department to welcome newly confirmed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, emphasizing the importance his administration intends to give diplomacy in his foreign policy. He told Foreign Service officers and other department employees they “are going to be critical to our success.”

The president and Clinton jointly announced the appointment of former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland, as special envoy to the Middle East. Former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who helped write the peace deal that ended Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, was named special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But for all the talk of a new era, it remained unclear how much of a shift Obama plans for the Middle East.

Though he named high-profile envoys to regions where critics say American attention lagged under Bush, the Mideast policy Obama outlined was no different.

He said he would aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians while also defending Israel’s “right to defend itself.” He called on Israel and Hamas to take steps to ensure the cease-fire that is in place in Gaza will endure. And he called on Arab states to show more support for the beleaguered Palestinian government of President Mahmoud Abbas.

On the surface, those views mirror the Bush administration‘s.

As for the treatment of terror suspects, Obama’s policy overhaul was an implicit though not directly stated criticism of what he, other Democrats, nations around the globe and human rights groups have called Bush’s overreach in the battle against terrorism.

In his presidential campaign, Obama had pledged to close Guantanamo, where many suspects have been detained for years without trial or charge.

Bush, too, had said he wanted to shut down Guantanamo. It never happened on his watch, amid the questions that must be answered to do so: Can other countries be persuaded to take some of the 245 men still be held there? Under what authority should remaining detainees be prosecuted? And, most difficult, what happens to the handful of detainees who are considered both too dangerous to be released to other nations and for whom evidence is deemed either too tainted or insufficient for a trial?

Obama has to answer those same questions.

As to that tough, third category of detainees, a senior administration official said “everything’s on the table” as a possibility, including the use of military tribunals that were much criticized by Obama. The official would brief reporters only on condition of anonymity, contending that was necessary in order to speak candidly about details.

The administration already has suspended trials for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo for 120 days pending a review of the military tribunals.

A task force must report in 30 days on where the Guantanamo detainees should go, as well as a destination for future terror suspects.

The national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. criticized Obama’s action.

“The detention facility is a valuable tool in the fight against terrorism because it provides useful intelligence information and it keeps our enemies off the battlefield,” said Glen Gardner.

Said Obama’s GOP rival for the White House, Sen. John McCain: “Numerous difficult issues remain.”

Recent polls show the nation essentially split on the topic. An Associated Press-GfK poll last week found about half wanted the prison shut on a priority basis, and 42 percent did not.

On interrogations, another review panel will have 180 days to study whether interrogation techniques allowed under the U.S. Army Field Manual would be acceptably effective in extracting lifesaving intelligence from hardened terrorists.

But the order opens the door to divergences from the Army manual, as it allows the panel to recommend “additional or different guidance” for use by intelligence agencies. That would not, however, allow “enhanced interrogation techniques” to be reintroduced, the official said.

Obama left room for the practice of “extraordinary renditions” of detainees to other nations to continue, though the White House said none would be sent to countries where they might be tortured.

The executive orders also throw out every opinion or memo that the Bush administration used to justify its interrogation programs. And the Obama administration said all terrorism suspects will be covered by standards set by the Geneva Conventions, something the Bush administration opposed.

Obama also ordered the Justice Department to review the case of Qatar native Ali al-Marri, who is the only enemy combatant currently being held in the U.S.

___

Associated Press writers Lara Jakes and Matthew Lee contributed to this story.(YahooNews)

(ObamaWatch) Day 2 : Obama says Pakistan, Afghanistan require wider strategy

January 23, 2009

by Dan De Luce

WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama on Thursday said Islamist extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan posed a grave threat that his new administration would tackle as a single problem under a wider strategy.

In announcing a special envoy to the region, Obama said the situation was “deteriorating” and that the war in Afghanistan could not be separated from the volatile border area with Pakistan, where Al-Qaeda and Taliban elements have regrouped.

“This is the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism. There, as in the Middle East, we must understand that we cannot deal with our problems in isolation,” Obama told employees of the State Department.

Obama, saying US strategy would be carefully reviewed, announced the appointment of seasoned diplomat Richard Holbrooke as a special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan — where the Taliban has come back from its ouster by US-led forces in 2001 to wage a bloody insurgency.

“There is no answer in Afghanistan that does not confront the Al-Qaeda and Taliban bases along the border, and there will be no lasting peace unless we expand spheres of opportunity for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Obama said.

“This is truly an international challenge of the highest order.”

As a candidate, Obama accused his predecessor of taking his “eye off the ball” by invading Iraq. He has vowed to send more combat troops to Afghanistan and reiterated Thursday he would place a higher priority on the region.

Obama said Holbrooke “will help lead our effort to forge and implement a strategic and sustainable approach to this critical region.”

“My administration is committed to refocusing attention and resources on Afghanistan and Pakistan and to spending those resources wisely.”

But the new president gave a stark assessment of the conditions in Afghanistan and its border with Pakistan, warning “that the American people and the international community must understand that the situation is perilous and progress will take time.”

He said violence was up sharply in Afghanistan and that “Al-Qaeda and the Taliban strike from bases embedded in rugged tribal terrain along the Pakistani border.”

“And while we have yet to see another attack on our soil since 9/11, Al-Qaeda terrorists remain at large and remain plotting.”

US intelligence agencies suspect Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda figures are operating out of the mountainous border region of Pakistan near Afghanistan.

Holbrooke, best known for forging a peace agreement in 1995 that ended bloodshed in Bosnia, said that Afghanistan and Pakistan were two “distinct” countries entwined by history and ethnic ties.

“This is a very difficult assignment as we all know,” said Holbrooke, once dubbed the “Bulldozer” for his no-holds-barred negotiating style in the Balkans.

Obama said that the US diplomatic effort would include working with NATO allies and other states in the region, which could include central Asian countries and India — arch-rival to Pakistan.

Tensions between the nuclear-armed adversaries spiked after attacks on Mumbai that India blamed on Pakistani militants and “official” agencies. But Islamabad has denied government agencies played any role in the November 26-29 assault that left 174 dead.(YahooNews)

(ObamaWatch) Day 2: Obama vows change in U.S. policy on Cuba President-elect has indicated he’s open to talks with Raul Castro

January 23, 2009

ANALYSIS

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HAVANA – Cuba’s communist leadership has long cast itself as David standing up to the U.S. Goliath and the crippling force of America’s punitive trade and travel embargo.

Now they have a problem: If Barack Obama follows through on campaign promises to ease restrictions on the island, he could chip away at the Castro brothers’ best case for staying in power.

And if a new Democrat-dominated Congress takes Obama’s moves even further, Cuban leaders may have a hard time maintaining their tight control over Cuban society.

“They’d have to throw out the whole script about American imperialism,” said Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute, a Washington-area think tank.

Top Cuban ideologues are already worried.

“We have before us the immense challenge of how to face a new chapter in the cultural struggle against the enemy,” Armando Hart, 78-year-old patriarch of Cuban communists, warned last week in Granma, the party newspaper.

If Cuban-Americans are allowed to visit more frequently and send more money to the island, it could spark “a new chapter in the ideological war between the Cuban revolution and imperialism,” Hart wrote.

Trade and travel embargo
The U.S. government’s Cuba policy has been frozen in time since 1962, when it imposed the embargo with the aim of bringing down Fidel Castro’s government at a time when U.S.-backed exiles mounted the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and Soviet missiles in Cuba pushed the world close to nuclear war.

Sporadic congressional efforts to end the embargo since then have failed, largely due to the political influence of powerful Cuban exiles who insisted on isolating Cuba and trying to strangle its economy to force Castro out.

But Castro, now 82, remained in power until he ceded the presidency to his brother in February due to illness. And Raul Castro, 77, shows no sign of making any fundamental changes.

The embargo is “a policy that hasn’t worked in nearly 50 years,” said Wayne Smith, a former top U.S. diplomat to Havana and a Cuba fellow at John Hopkins’ Center for International Policy. “It’s stupid, it’s counterproductive and there is no international support for it.”

Obama has promised to lift limits that President George W. Bush tightened on Cuban-Americans wanting to visit and send money to relatives. He also says he’s open to a dialogue with Raul Castro — something the Cuban president has indicated he would welcome.

If Obama really wants to force the Castros to open up, he should push Congress to eliminate the embargo altogether, and allow Americans to freely travel to Cuba, said Smith. “Lifting travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban-Americans just doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.”

So far, Obama has said he supports the embargo. But many hope his initially modest moves will encourage the Democrat-controlled Congress to do something bold.

“Today for the first time there is real political space for an incoming administration to try something new on Cuba policy,” said Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council, which opposes all unilateral sanctions.

Shifting voter attitudes
When Obama visited Florida during his campaign he was hosted by the Cuban American National Foundation, a longtime bastion of Republicans who shot down any attempt to ease the embargo. Obama ended up carrying Florida, winning even in counties that re-elected Republican representatives who have been the most stalwart proponents of isolating Cuba.

Even these Cuban-Americans, while they still support the embargo, may sense a shift in voters’ attitudes. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and brothers Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart de-emphasized Cuba in their campaigns, focusing on the economy, health care and Iraq.

Obama is unlikely to ignore their views, but if he wants to force a change in Cuba policy, he might not need their votes.

In Havana, dissident journalist Miriam Leiva says toppling the embargo could be agonizing for communist leaders who have long used it to “justify their errors and efficiencies, to repress and jail anyone of differing opinions.”

But Cuban officials insist they want all U.S. restrictions toward the island to end.

“We expect that the new president will change the policy toward Cuba after nearly 50 years,” Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque told The Associated Press after the U.N. General Assembly last month voted 185 to 3 (the U.S., Israel and Palau) with 2 abstentions (Micronesia and the Marshall Islands) to repeal the embargo.

Many Cubans are hoping a new U.S. administration will encourage openings that improve their lives.

In a congratulatory letter to Obama, government opponent Hector Palacio Ruiz expressed hope the new administration would allow direct financial aid to dissidents and “eliminate the obstacles that impede us from putting an end to the tyranny that our people suffer.”

Leiva argued in an essay that a freer flow of visitors to the island “could favor the sharing of democratic ideas indispensable at this time, when urgent change is required.”

(ObamaWatch) Day 1: Obama calls Middle East leaders during first day in office

January 22, 2009

MARK WEISS in Jerusalem

HOURS AFTER the last Israeli troops left the Gaza Strip, President Barack Obama, in his first day in office, phoned regional leaders yesterday stressing his commitment to pursuing Middle East peace.

The first foreign leader to receive a phone call from Mr Obama was Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. The new US leader pledged to work with Mr Abbas as a partner for a “durable peace” in the Middle East.

Mr Obama promised Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert that he would work together with Israel to halt the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip.

Mr Olmert told the US president that preventing Hamas from rearming was critical to “stabilising the ceasefire and promoting the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

President Obama also spoke yesterday to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah, fulfilling a promise to get involved in Middle East peacemaking from day one of his presidency.

Earlier yesterday the last Israeli troops pulled out of the Gaza Strip, but Israeli forces remained massed on the border, ready to respond to any Palestinian ceasefire violations.

Tsahi Hanegbi, the chairman of the Knesset’s (parliament) foreign affairs and defence committee, warned of a harsh Israeli response.

“Hamas militants face a simple equation,” he said, “If the rocket fire resumes, we will respond with force so strong and overpowering, they will miss the day the Israel airforce’s offensive began.”

Israel had planned to pull out all its troops on Tuesday, before Mr Obama’s inauguration ceremony, but isolated incidents of shooting and mortar fire delayed the withdrawal.

Inside Gaza, armed police returned to the streets, directing traffic and guarding the few government offices that survived the Israeli bombing.

Hamas security forces also began rounding up residents who were suspected of providing Israel with intelligence prior to, and during, the 22-day military campaign. “The internal security service was instructed to track collaborators and hit them hard,” said Ehab al-Ghsain, spokesman of the Hamas interior ministry.

Fatah, the secular rival to Hamas, issued a statement in Gaza, claiming that since the fighting ended at the weekend, its members have been targeted by Hamas gunmen.

Fatah claimed that there were cases of summary executions with bodies thrown on to the piles of rubble.

Moussa Abu Marzouk, the deputy head of Hamas’s political wing, confirmed that his organisation had executed several people who were considered collaborators and had helped pinpoint several key targets in Gaza for the Israeli air force.

“We will bring to justice those who were involved in helping Israel mark the location of interior minister Said Siam,” he promised.

Israeli official Amos Gilad is due in Cairo today for further talks with Egyptian representatives on efforts to prevent Hamas rearming via smuggling tunnels.

Hamas negotiators, who are holding separate talks with the Egyptians, are pressing for the border crossings to be opened.

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times

(ObamaWatch) Day 1: President Obama to close Guantánamo camp within year

January 22, 2009

President Barack Obama is set to issue orders today to close Guantánamo prison and overhaul the treatment of terrorism suspects.

A draft executive order circulated in Washington yesterday sets a one-year deadline to close the controversial US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where foreign terrorism suspects have been detained for years without trial.

Mr Obama is expected to issue the order on Guantánamo today. He will also ban abusive interrogations and order a review of detention policies for captured militants, said congressional aides and a White House official.

Yesterday, Mr Obama also retook his oath of office. Chief Justice John Roberts had inadvertently switched a word while administering it during the inauguration on Tuesday.

The new president pledged during his election campaign to close Guantánamo, which became a blot on the human rights record of the United States and a symbol of detainee abuse and detention without charge under the Bush administration.

The draft order would require an immediate review of how to deal with the remaining Guantánamo prisoners. The military commissions set up to try detainees would also be halted pending a study.

A military judge yesterday suspended the cases of five suspected plotters of the September 11th, 2001, attacks on the United States and of a young Canadian man at Guantánamo, a day after Mr Obama sought a 120-day suspension of pending cases.

Another presidential order would ban CIA use of “enhanced” interrogation methods by making all US agencies abide by the Army Field Manual, which bans techniques such as waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning the CIA says was used on three terrorism suspects.

Outgoing CIA chief Michael Hayden has defended the harsh techniques and called the Army manual too restrictive but says the agency would abide by limitations. The CIA declined comment on the reports.

Mr Obama is also expected to order a review of all U.S. detention policies.

Former president George W. Bush has said many countries that criticised the United States were unwilling to take any detainees. But the draft order says diplomatic efforts by the Obama administration could lead to new locations for a “substantial number” of current detainees.

The United States still holds about 250 men at the US naval base in Cuba and wants to try about 80 of them on terrorism charges.

Two al-Qaeda suspects have been convicted by the military commissions at Guantánamo and one pleaded guilty. Two of the men have already returned to their home countries.

Washington has cleared 50 detainees for release but cannot return them to home countries because of the risk they would be tortured or persecuted there. Around 500 others have been freed or transferred to other governments since 2002.

On his first full day as US president, Mr Obama contacted Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders, telling them he would engage actively in the pursuit of peace in the region from the beginning of his administration.

“In the aftermath of the Gaza conflict, he emphasised his determination to work to help consolidate the ceasefire by establishing an effective anti-smuggling regime to prevent Hamas from rearming, and facilitating in partnership with the Palestinian Authority a major reconstruction effort for Palestinians in Gaza,” his press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

Mr Obama is expected to ask former senator George Mitchell, who helped to broker the Belfast Agreement in 1998, to take on the role of Middle East envoy.

The new president announced yesterday that senior White House staff would accept a pay freeze, as he unveiled tough new ethics rules for his administration and promised a new era of transparency.

Additional reporting Reuters

© 2009 irishtimes.com

(ObamaWatch) Day 1:Obama moves quickly to take charge

January 22, 2009

(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.”

Taking action

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 clochhead@sfchronicle.com.