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President-Elect Meets the Press, Cautiously

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.

Obama's first news conference was relatively short -- barely more than 20 minutes. After an opening statement, he fielded just nine questions. Most dealt with the economy, but he was also asked about Iran, about where his two daughters will go to school and about what kind of dog the family is going to get.

The setting was itself a departure, more formal than the makeshift stages of the campaign trail, and with far more reporters. The "Change" sign on the front of the lectern had been replaced by one reading "The Office of the President Elect."

Members of Obama's traveling press corps, many on the trail for 21 months, debated how to acknowledge his entrance. The group stood as the curtain parted. Obama looked taken aback and laughed. "Thank you very much, everybody," he said. "Thank you very much."

Standing behind Obama were economic experts and business leaders who were part of his transition economic advisory board. The group spent the morning with Obama and Biden discussing urgent problems such as the automobile industry crisis.

Its members, including former Treasury secretaries Robert E. Rubin and Lawrence H. Summers, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker, will help Obama draft an economic agenda for his first months in office. But their presence also relieves pressure to immediately fill the job of Treasury secretary and other top economic posts.

The president-elect was asked just one foreign policy question, about a congratulatory note he had reportedly received from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "I am aware that the letter was sent," he replied. He said he would review it and respond "appropriately."

During the campaign, Obama said he was prepared to meet with the Iranian leader without preconditions, although he has since softened his language on how he might seek to deal with the Iranian leadership.

He sounded a cautious note generally about Iran. "It's only been three days since the election," he said. "Obviously, how we approach and deal with a country like Iran is not something that we should, you know, simply do in a knee-jerk fashion. I think we've got to think it through."

The historic significance of his ascent to the presidency went unmentioned at the news conference, and there was no nod to the long journey he had taken with many of the reporters in the room.

He did get personal with one local reporter, Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times, asking what happened to her arm, which was in a sling. "I cracked my shoulder running to your speech on election night," she replied.

"Oh, no," Obama said. "I think that was the only major incident during the entire Grant Park celebration."

The president-elect said he had spoken to former presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, and made one awkward aside, noting that he had spoken only to living ex-presidents. "I didn't want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any seances," he said, perhaps unaware that Reagan is ailing. Later, he called the former first lady to apologize for what his spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter called a "careless and offhand remark."

He also said he has reread some of the writings of Abraham Lincoln, his favorite president, "who's always an extraordinary inspiration." And he confirmed that an Obama family debate about a new puppy has become a national fixation. "I think it's generated more interest on our Web site than just about anything," he said.

The dog, he said, is a major issue within the family. His daughter Malia, 10, is allergic, so the dog must be hypoallergenic. But he said the family prefers to adopt a pet from a shelter. "But, obviously, a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me," he said.

Not many presidents or presidents-elect have made such a comparison.

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