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Obama Starts Reversing Bush Policies
The new president's day started with a quiet visit to the Oval Office. After a night of dancing at 10 inaugural balls, he arrived at 8:35 a.m., sitting alone for 10 minutes in one of the world's most famous rooms, aides said.
He read a note that Bush had left for him in a desk drawer, a tradition that dates back several presidents. The note was in an envelope marked "To: #44, From: #43," according to a statement from Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs, who did not disclose its contents.
Later in the morning, Obama attended the prayer service. But the serenity of the cathedral quickly gave way to the grinding reality of Obama's new responsibilities, as he placed calls to Middle East leaders, plunging into an arena about which he had remained silent during the 77-day transition period.
Sitting behind an almost bare desk in the Oval Office, Obama called President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Obama pledged "active engagement" for a fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, aides said.
"In the aftermath of the Gaza conflict, he emphasized his determination to work to help consolidate the cease-fire by establishing an effective anti-smuggling regime to prevent Hamas from re-arming, and facilitating in partnership with the Palestinian Authority a major reconstruction effort for Palestinians in Gaza," Gibbs said in a statement.
Today, Obama and Vice President Biden will meet at the State Department with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was confirmed 94 to 2 by the Senate yesterday. Obama plans to announce the selection of former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) as Middle East envoy, and former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke as envoy for Afghanistan, Pakistan "and related matters," sources close to the administration said.
Mitchell, who is expected to travel to the region almost immediately upon taking the post, will be charged with restarting the Middle East peace process after the three weeks of violence between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Obama's hour-long discussion with senior national security, military and diplomatic advisers centered on the situation in Iraq and the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Obama listened to presentations by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq.
The president issued no orders, sources said, but instead outlined his goal of withdrawing all combat troops within 16 months, with a "residual force" of undetermined size remaining to protect U.S. diplomatic and other civilian officials, train Iraqi security forces, and conduct limited counterinsurgency operations. The sources said the war in Afghanistan was only briefly mentioned.
Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, said in an interview yesterday that U.S. officials had not conveyed any specific timetable to officials in his country. But he said the government is speeding up what he called "readiness of its forces" in case of an early withdrawal.
In a statement, Obama said he had "asked the military leadership to engage in additional planning necessary to execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq." The statement also said Obama will visit the Pentagon to meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and plans "a full review of the situation in Afghanistan."
The lobbying rules announced yesterday aim to end what has become a way of life in Washington, where those serving in an administration collect chits that are quickly cashed in once they depart government. Under the new rules, presidential appointees who leave office will not be allowed to lobby any federal agency as long as Obama remains in office.
"It's not about advantaging yourself. It's not about advancing your friends or your corporate clients. It's not about advancing an ideological agenda or the special interests of any organization," Obama told Cabinet members and senior staff at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. "Public service is, simply and absolutely, about advancing the interests of Americans."
The disclosure rules turn existing law on its head, requiring the government to err on the side of releasing information, not on the side of keeping documents and records secret.
"The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is over now," Obama declared.
Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Shailagh Murray and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington and correspondent Anthony Shadid and special correspondent Qais Mizher in Baghdad contributed to this report.