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Obama steps forward with his own plan

Asserting himself from the sidelines, he seeks to calm fears with a more aggressive economic stimulus.

November 23, 2008|Peter Wallsten | Wallsten is a writer in our Washington bureau.

WASHINGTON — With a series of forceful actions in recent days, amid an almost unprecedented set of challenges, Barack Obama has taken an unusual step for a president-elect: attempting to alter the country's perilous course even before he takes office.

The most dramatic example came Saturday, when Obama announced a far more aggressive economic stimulus plan than previously promised -- a two-year program to add 2.5 million jobs that he said represented "an early down payment on the type of reform my administration will bring to Washington."

That announcement was the latest indication that the president-elect has decided to use the transition period to influence events at a time of crisis, when the current administration appears powerless to stop a slide.

"There's no question that Bush is still president, but people are looking for signs to see what's going to happen going forward," said an Obama aide who, like others, requested anonymity when discussing deliberations inside the transition. "We're going to attempt to do that in this period."

Obama has moved with unusual speed to fill most of his top White House staff positions. And over the last week, he settled on a number of key Cabinet appointments designed to remove the uncertainty that has sparked turbulence in the financial markets and to replace it with a sense of confidence in the administration-in-waiting. He offered the all-important job of Treasury secretary to a pragmatic and experienced regulator, Timothy F. Geithner, and reached out to former campaign rival Hillary Rodham Clinton, an experienced figure known around the world, to be the country's top diplomat. After the Geithner selection was reported Friday, the Dow Jones industrial average soared nearly 500 points.

On Monday, the president-elect will emerge from two weeks of near-seclusion to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his economics team for a news conference that aides hope will help calm an anxious public.

Obama's aggressive posture marks an evolution inside his transition team since immediately after the Nov. 4 election, when he pledged to live by a mantra that the country is led by "one president at a time."

Obama and his aides have been discussing how hands-off he should be with circumstances changing so dramatically: stocks tumbling; negotiations stalling over an economic stimulus plan and a possible automobile industry bailout; and another financial giant, Citigroup Inc., at risk.

The quandary for Obama's team has been how to finesse a set of challenges not seen since 1932: a quickly deteriorating economy and a transition of power between two presidents with vastly different views on how to fix it.

"They recognize it's a careful balancing act, because you want to bring a whole new face to it when you're in office," said Leon Panetta, a White House chief of staff under President Clinton who has informally advised Obama's aides and has had recent conversations with them. "But at the same time, there's an underlying concern that things seem to be deteriorating rapidly" -- making the new president's job harder.

Panetta said the country is "caught between a president who doesn't have a lot of credibility even if he tries to do something and a new president who, if it looks like he's going to lay out things he's going to try to do, it looks like he's putting the cart before the horse. It's a tough place for the country to be in right now."

Aides are wary too of taking ownership of problems they do not yet have the formal power to address.

Still, with the financial markets and the public clearly looking for reassurance, Saturday's announcement -- and Monday's news conference -- signal that the transition has entered a phase in which the president-elect will become more visible and vocal.

Obama has yet to stake a firm position on the auto bailout being discussed on Capitol Hill, but he might inject himself into the debate as he takes questions Monday on the country's economic woes.

The balancing act was apparent last week as Obama worked behind the scenes to settle on a series of gravitas-heavy Cabinet appointments and looked for creative ways to signal policy changes.

He made no live public appearances. But he used a videotaped message to a bipartisan meeting of governors to promise quick action on limiting greenhouse gas emissions and enacting a controversial plan to charge companies for the right to emit gases that cause global warming.

Some opponents of a "cap and trade" program have said it could further hurt the economy by adding costs for companies. Obama's address suggested he viewed the plan as, rather, a tool to create jobs -- arguing that revenue from emissions charges would be invested in environmentally friendly industries.

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