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Out: Seances. In: Mutts.

By Dana Milbank
Saturday, November 8, 2008

As the time grew nearer for Barack Obama's first news conference as president-elect yesterday, aides announced that the start would be delayed by 10 to 15 minutes. Then they announced a five-minute delay. Then another. Finally, the next president finally sauntered onto the stage, a fashionable 23 minutes late.

After eight years of on-time news conferences by President Bush, the nation now has tangible proof: The Democrats are back in charge.

There were other signs of change, too, some refreshing, some less so.

The president-elect, tickled that reporters stood when he entered the room for the first time, forgot the standard "Please be seated."

When asked whether he had conferred with any living ex-presidents, he seemed to dis Ronald Reagan's ailing widow. "I didn't want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any seances," he said. (He later called her to apologize.) Even more alarming for those steeped in the protocol of the Beltway, Obama, in Chicago, called on representatives of both local newspapers but -- horrors -- didn't call on The Washington Post.

But aside from those stylistic breaks from his predecessor, the agent of change was a study in caution.

He wore a Bush-blue tie. Over his shoulder loomed Jimmy Carter's Fed chairman. And when he opened his mouth to speak, the first word that came out after "Thank you very much" was: "Uhhhh." (Pause.)

Timing of an economic stimulus? "I want to see a stimulus package sooner rather than later."

How he would respond to a letter from the Iranian president? "I think we've got to think it through."

His presidential appointments? "I want to move with all deliberate haste, but I want to emphasize 'deliberate' as well as 'haste.' "

Even a question about what breed of dog his family would choose as a pet provoked a cagey reply: "Malia is allergic, so it has to be hypoallergenic; there are a number of breeds that are hypoallergenic. On the other hand, our preference would be to get a shelter dog, but, obviously, a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me. So whether we're going to be able to balance those two things, I think, is a pressing issue on the Obama household."

If Obama's first moves are an indication, he plans not so much a break with the past as a restoration of Democratic mandarins. Among those standing behind him yesterday were many of Bill Clinton's Cabinet officers and top aides: Bill Daley, Bob Reich, Larry Summers, Rahm Emanuel, Bob Rubin and Laura Tyson.

No technique was spared in projecting stability and reassurance. In addition to the economic muckety-mucks who stood silently on stage behind the president-elect, Obama's aides decided to make it an eight-flag news conference. Thus the television screen was a tableau of red, white, blue, and Paul Volcker's belly sticking through his unbuttoned suit jacket. Obama's lectern was adorned with a graphic announcing "THE OFFICE of the PRESIDENT ELECT."

Reading his opening statement carefully, he offered a caution: "Now, the United States has only one government and one president at a time. And until January 20th of next year, that government is the current administration." True, but for the first time, his words carried the weight of president-elect, and Wall Street traders voted with their buy and sell orders.

When Obama began his speech, the Dow Jones industrial average was up 255 points for the day.

The AP's Nedra Pickler asked what economic measures he would take in his first 100 days. He offered boilerplate about how "my transition team is going to be monitoring very closely what happens over the course of the next several months." The Dow's gains shrank to 145 points.

ABC News's Jake Tapper asked how he would respond to a congratulatory letter from Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "I will be reviewing the letter from President Ahmadinejad, and we will respond appropriately," Obama answered. The Dow's increase on the day had shrunk to 131 points. Only after Obama disappeared behind the curtain did the market resume its advance.

CBS's Chip Reid asked whether he would confront Bush on points of disagreement when they meet next week. "We are gratified by the invitation" to the White House, Obama answered. "I'm not going to anticipate problems."

Vagueness prevailed on matters of appointments ("I'm confident we're going to have an outstanding team"), his replacement in the Senate from Illinois ("This is the governor's decision"), his tax plan ("We're going to be continuing to take a look at the data"), any concerns about U.S. intelligence ("I'm going to skip that") and which Washington school his daughters will attend ("We'll be making a decision about that in the future").

He closed with a final platitude -- "The goal of my plan is to provide tax relief to families that are struggling" -- then called the news conference to a close not quite 20 minutes after he began. Walking off the stage, he called out "bonjour" to a French reporter. That part, at least, was a change we can believe in.

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