President Barack Obama on Wednesday plunges into the task of governing a hurting nation yearning for change, meeting with his economic team and military commanders a day after claiming his place in history as the first black US president. The twin crises of the economy and Iraq figured to take center stage on the new administration's first full working day. In addition to meeting with his advisers, Obama is welcoming a stream of public visitors into the White House while Congress gives his economic revival plan a going-over and takes up the nominations of Hillary Rodham Clinton to be secretary of state and Timothy Geithner for treasury secretary.
"Tonight, we celebrate. Tomorrow, the work begins ... Together, I am confident we will write the next great chapter in America's story," Obama declared on Tuesday night at the Commander in Chief Ball, one of 10 official inaugural celebrations that kept him and first lady Michelle Obama up into the early morning hours. Obama's party now controls both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time since 1994, providing a chance for the new administration to succeed if he can work in concert effectively with congressional Democrats.
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 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 for the governed.
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 that 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," he said in an ABC News television interview. "That's going to be the thing we'll be most focused on." The breakdown of confidence in the country's banks, occurring on the same day as his inauguration, gave the matter fresh urgency. Financial stocks, many of them falling by double digit percentages, led a huge drop on Wall Street Tuesday that left the major indexes down more than 4 per cent.
The market's faith in the outgoing Bush administration's $700 billion bailout effort was already waning. Many experts believe Obama's administration will have little choice but to pump more money into the banking sector or create an entity to buy banks' soured assets such as subprime mortgages so they will start lending again.
Addressing the war in Iraq that he has promised to end was featuring prominently in Obama's first day as well. According to officials, Obama will conduct a video teleconference late in the afternoon with members of the National Security Council as well as the U.S. military commanders in the two war zones. Obama has said he wants US combat troops out of Iraq in 16 months, as long as doing so would not endanger either the Americans left behind for training and terrorism-fighting or the security gains in Iraq. He has said he would use that drawdown to bolster the US presence in Afghanistan, where a resurgent Taliban has been gaining ground.
In his inauguration speech on Tuesday he offered a glimpse of what was to come.
"We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan," he said.
Summoned to the White House to discuss the way ahead in the wars were Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the lone Republican Cabinet holdover from the Bush administration along with chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm Mike Mullen; the top military commander in the Middle East, Gen David Petraeus, and other members of the security council.
Participating from the war front were to be Gen Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, and Gen David McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan, according to two senior military officers. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting has not been officially announced by the White House. While Obama gets to work in earnest at the White House, Congress planned to do its part.
A Senate committee was giving a going-over to 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. Getting the Obama administration fully staffed also was proceeding.
Within hours of Obama assuming the presidency, the Senate approved six members of his Cabinet. His choice of Clinton to be secretary of state awaited Senate action on 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 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 US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, in 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 US 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 on 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 was 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 joint session of Congress.