President-Elect Meets the Press, Cautiously

President-Elect Barack Obama speaks about the current economic crisis hardships, and ways he plans to help combat them. Video by AP
By Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 8, 2008

CHICAGO, Nov. 7 -- In his first public appearance since Tuesday's victory speech, President-elect Barack Obama sent a clear signal that he intends to move deliberately during his transition and resist pressure to flesh out details of his governing agenda or in other ways act like a president until he is sworn in next January.

Friday's news conference had some of the trappings of a presidential event, with tight security, a huge press corps in attendance, Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., White House chief of staff-designate Rahm Emanuel and a phalanx of advisers on hand, and a row of American flags as the backdrop.

But in his opening statement, Obama emphasized that he is not the president, and he made it clear throughout the session that he will not attempt to act as a shadow government or to significantly manipulate the levers of power as long as President Bush is in office.

"The United States has only one government and one president at a time," he said. "And until January 20th of next year, that government is the current administration."

On Monday, Obama and his wife, Michelle, will fly to Washington to meet with the president and first lady Laura Bush. Asked whether he would publicly confront Bush during this period if he disagrees with something, Obama deflected the question by talking about the need for bipartisanship.

"This economy is in bad shape. And we have just completed one of the longest election cycles in recorded history," he said. "Now is a good time for us to set politics aside for a while and think practically about what will actually work to move the economy forward. And it's in that spirit that I'll have the conversation with the president."

Obama was not asked, nor did he volunteer, how he interpreted the results from Tuesday, in which he became the first Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 to win more than 51 percent of the popular vote. Whatever mandate he may believe he received, he decided not to assert it, as Bush did four years ago after his reelection.

Obama seemed neither awed by the powers he is soon to assume nor impatient about trying to put his own stamp on the country. Though the economy is in deep trouble, he appeared mindful that a president-elect has no real power and that preparing for his presidency is his top priority.

His advisers have discussed this question as they readied for the transition. Their conclusion was that Obama could not, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did between his election in 1932 and his inauguration four months later, completely absent himself from the ongoing economic crisis.

But from what Obama said here Friday, that involvement is likely to be carefully chosen. He will not, for example, attend a global economic summit next week in which major nations will grapple with the international fallout from the financial institutions crisis. He urged Congress to enact a fiscal stimulus package during a lame-duck session, but an aide said he will not return to Washington as a senator to participate in the legislative deliberations.

When asked how quickly he will name members of his Cabinet, including a Treasury secretary and secretary of state, Obama said he will not be rushed. "I want to move with all deliberate haste," he said, "but I want to emphasize 'deliberate' as well as 'haste.' I'm proud of the choice I made of vice president, partly because we did it right. I'm proud of the choice of chief of staff, because we thought it through."

Still, given the swiftness with which he has begun to assemble his White House staff, it is likely that appointments to key posts will come at a steady pace. Obama has told his staff that he prefers to take a more comprehensive approach to building his government.

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