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Obama makes priority clear

He says a stimulus plan will be his top goal if Congress fails to act. Recovery won't be easy, he warns.

November 08, 2008|Peter Nicholas and Michael Finnegan | Nicholas and Finnegan are Times staff writers.

CHICAGO — Sending a strong message that the faltering economy will be his top focus, President-elect Barack Obama on Friday urged Congress to pass an economic stimulus package before he takes office. If lawmakers fail to act, he said, he will make it "the first thing" he gets done.

Obama made his first public appearance since his victory Tuesday night, using his opening remarks at a news conference to underscore the "sobering news" that the nation lost 240,000 jobs in October. Flanking Obama were 16 of his economic advisors, a heavyweight cast of former Treasury secretaries, business leaders and financial experts. Obama had presided over a meeting with the group earlier in the day.

Obama offered few concrete details of his approach to the economy. He said he wanted to extend the period that jobless workers can receive unemployment benefits, and come up with ways to help the auto industry survive the economic downturn and develop more fuel-efficient cars.

But he advised Americans not to expect a speedy, painless recovery.

"It is not going to be quick and it is not going to be easy for us to dig ourselves out of the hole that we are in, but America is a strong and resilient country," Obama said. "And I know we will succeed if we put aside partisanship and politics and work together as one nation. That's what I intend to do."

Obama's hopes for another stimulus plan square with those of congressional Democratic leaders. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid want to see a stimulus package of about $60 billion to $100 billion passed this year.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, said the question was whether Republicans or the Bush White House would block such an effort.

Reid and Pelosi "strongly support the need for an additional stimulus package," Manley said. "Hopefully, we can pass one this year in the so-called lame-duck session. If not, we'll work with President-elect Obama to get it done as quickly as possible next year."

Taking questions from reporters, Obama was by turns serious and playful. He committed his first gaffe as president-elect when answering a question about his preparations for the job. Asked whether he had spoken to past presidents, Obama said he had talked to "all of them that are living." As an aside, he said: "I didn't want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any seances." As first lady, Nancy Reagan spoke to an astrologer in setting former President Reagan's schedule.

Obama later called the former first lady to apologize for the "careless and offhanded remark he made," according to a statement released by his staff.

At the news conference, Obama offered a few details about a subject of intense national curiosity since his victory speech: the search for a family dog.

A new puppy was Obama's promise to his daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7.

"With respect to the dog, this is a major issue," Obama quipped.

"Malia is allergic, so it has to be hypoallergenic. There are a number of breeds that are hypoallergenic," he said. "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."

In the foreign policy realm, Obama reiterated that he wanted international pressure leveled against the Iranians to prevent their development of a nuclear weapon. He also suggested that he was in no hurry to engage in direct talks with Tehran.

During the campaign, Obama faced criticism for saying he would be willing to meet with leaders of nations hostile to the U.S. without preconditions.

Obama said he was still mulling over how to respond to a congratulatory note sent by Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He said he would "respond appropriately."

"It's only been three days since the election," Obama said. "Obviously, how we approach and deal with a country like Iran is not something that we should . . . do in a knee-jerk fashion. I think we've got to think it through.

"But I have to reiterate once again that we only have one president at a time. And I want to be very careful that we are sending the right signals to the world as a whole that I am not the president, and I won't be until Jan. 20."

To date, Obama has announced only one appointment -- Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) as his new chief of staff. Advisors said Obama would move swiftly to name secretaries of the Treasury and Homeland Security, given the volatile economic climate and chronic worries about the nation's safety.

Obama said, though, that he did not want to act with undue haste.

"I think it's very important in all these key positions, both in the economic team and the national security team, to -- to get it right and -- and not to be so rushed that you end up making mistakes. I'm confident that we're going to have an outstanding team, and we will be rolling that out in subsequent weeks."

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