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INTERVIEW

Obama sees hope for global goodwill

His presidency opens new doors, he says.

December 10, 2008|Christi Parsons, John McCormick and Peter Nicholas | Parsons and Nicholas are writers in our Washington bureau. McCormick writes for the Chicago Tribune.

CHICAGO — Barack Obama says his presidency is an opportunity for the United States to spread a message of tolerance, starting the day of his inauguration and continuing with a speech he plans to deliver somewhere in the Muslim world.

And when he takes the oath of office Jan. 20, he plans to be sworn in like other presidents, using his full name: Barack Hussein Obama.

"I think we've got a unique opportunity to reboot America's image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular," Obama said Tuesday, promising an "unrelenting" desire to "create a relationship of mutual respect and partnership in countries and with peoples of goodwill who want their citizens and ours to prosper together."

The world, he said, "is ready for that message."

In a wide-ranging interview, Obama discussed his strategy for his first year in office, vigorously defended his choice for attorney general and reflected on his role as the first African American to be elected president.

Obama's first newspaper interview since his Nov. 4 election came just hours after Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich was arrested on a federal conspiracy complaint. The complaint alleges that Blagojevich essentially tried to auction off the appointment to replace Obama in the U.S. Senate. The president-elect declined to speak about any discussions between his representatives and those of the governor, a fellow Democrat.

Obama said he had never spoken personally to Blagojevich about his possible replacement, either before or since his victory. Shortly after the interview ended Tuesday afternoon, Obama's transition office released a statement saying that top advisor David Axelrod misspoke last month when he said Obama had talked with Blagojevich about the Senate vacancy.

Citing an "ongoing investigation" into the matter, Obama said he considered it inappropriate to talk further about the situation.

As the Blagojevich drama unfolded in the federal courthouse, Obama lounged in an armchair in his spare black and gray office, a scattering of peanut shells from his afternoon snack littering the floor.

Obama said the country must take advantage of a unique chance to recalibrate relations around the globe, through diplomacy that emphasizes inclusiveness and tolerance as well as an unflinching stand against terrorism.

"The message I want to send is that we will be unyielding in stamping out the terrorist extremism we saw in Mumbai," Obama said, adding that he plans to give a major address in an Islamic capital as part of his global outreach.

Though world events and economic winds have made his agenda all the more challenging, Obama kept close counsel on how he plans to move forward.

He would not commit to specific plans on matters as varied as free trade, unionization and illegal immigration. Instead, he said, his nominees and advisors are studying the issues and will report back with recommendations.

Asked if he would support the extension of the fence between the U.S.-Mexico border, Obama deferred to his nominee for the Homeland Security Department, Janet Napolitano.

In similar fashion, he sidestepped questions about whether he would move quickly on promises to rework the North American Free Trade Agreement or push the so-called card-check law that would make it easier for unions to organize.

"My economic team is going to put together a package on trade and on worker issues," he said. "That will be presented to me. I don't want to anticipate right now what sequences will be on these issues."

Likewise, he offered no hints about future Cabinet appointments, but voiced strong support for Eric H. Holder Jr., his nominee for attorney general, by batting away concerns about Holder's role in the controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich at the end of Bill Clinton's presidency.

"Everybody who looks at his record says the guy was an outstanding attorney, an outstanding prosecutor, an outstanding judge, an outstanding No. 2 at the Justice Department," Obama said. "And Eric has acknowledged the Rich pardon was a mistake on his part, not having caught that earlier.

"I agree with him," Obama said. "I think it was a mistake. But when you look at the totality of his experience, there's no doubt he's going to be an outstanding attorney general."

Some liberal supporters have expressed disappointment over some of Obama's choices, like the one to retain Robert M. Gates as secretary of Defense. But the president-elect said his backers had no cause for concern.

He is steadfast on his "agenda of change," he said.

"On all the promises that I made during the campaign, there has been no sense I'm backing off," he said. "What I'm putting in place is a Cabinet of extraordinarily qualified, competent people who would not have accepted my offer for them to join my administration unless they believed in my vision."

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