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Obama to start tackling economic, military issues

The new president will meet with his top advisors on both subjects as he begins his first full day in office. He also receives a private note from his predecessor, George W. Bush.

January 22, 2009|Peter Nicholas and Christi Parsons

WASHINGTON — In a grinding first full day as president, Barack Obama moved decisively to distance himself from the previous administration, pushing top military leaders for a plan to withdraw combat troops from Iraq and issuing a string of orders to make government more open.

The new president signaled his desire to wade into the Mideast conflict, conferring by telephone with the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. He also laid the groundwork for fulfilling his campaign pledge to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Obama used Day One as well to signal his commitment to a central campaign promise: upending the way Washington does business. He announced tough new restrictions on lobbying activity.

"This is big," said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institute at George Washington University that has challenged Bush administration policies on the release of information. "No president has done so much on the first day in office to make his administration transparent."

The 44th president arrived at the Oval Office at 8:35 a.m., savoring the moment alone as he read a note left by his predecessor in an envelope marked "To: #44 from #43."

But that was about the only quiet moment he had.

In an afternoon meeting with commanders running the war in Iraq, Obama said, he asked them to "engage in additional planning necessary to execute a responsible military drawdown."

His language was less forceful than an often-repeated campaign promise that he would instruct the Pentagon that it had a "new mission in Iraq" -- ending the war and bringing all combat forces home within 16 months.

But Obama's goal, said officials briefed on the meeting, remains the same: accelerating the troop withdrawal. The officials, who requested anonymity when discussing administration strategy, said the exchange was amicable.

The president and military leaders are not far apart in their respective timetables. Obama has called for a withdrawal of all combat forces by mid-2010. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has crafted a plan for a more conservative drawdown, but one that would still remove most forces well before the end of 2011. In an agreement approved by Iraqi lawmakers, the U.S. has pledged to remove all military forces by that date.

In a move cheered by human rights activists, the administration also began circulating a draft executive order on Wednesday calling for a review of all cases at Guantanamo and the closure of the detention center within a year.

Discord in the Middle East was on Obama's agenda as well.

During the transition, he steadfastly refused to offer an opinion on the conflict in Gaza, noting there was only "one president at a time." But as president, one of his first acts was to place calls to the four foreign leaders to discuss ways to make an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire endure. He told them he wanted to stop weapons from being smuggled to Hamas as a step toward a permanent end to the fighting, according to the White House.

Obama moved as well to put his own house in order. In a nod to the recession, he announced that about 100 administration aides earning more than $100,000 would have to forgo pay raises.

Speaking to his senior staff, Obama said, "However long we are keepers of the public trust, we should never forget that we are here as public servants, and public service is a privilege. 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. Public service is, simply and absolutely, about advancing the interests of Americans."

He also rolled out new rules for his appointees, requiring them to sign a pledge meant to disrupt the "revolving door" by which lobbyists flow seamlessly into government and back into the lobbying business.

His aides are barred from lobbying any executive agency for the life of the Obama administration. That means an appointee who leaves the White House in, say, 2010 would be barred from lobbying the executive branch until 2017 if Obama were to serve two terms.

At present, officials who leave an agency or department cannot go back and lobby their old offices for at least one year.

"It's unprecedented," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonpartisan watchdog group Democracy 21. "It basically protects citizens against individuals entering public service and then converting their public service to personal financial gain when they leave."

Lobbyists who join his administration must wait two years before they can take part in any issue on which they lobbied.

Obama also issued a trio of decrees intended to make government more transparent. The moves were applauded by historians, political scientists and lawyers who took their battle for access to executive branch records to court during the Bush presidency.

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