Obama puts hope on hold in days of transition

Meeting with advisors
President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden meet with the Transition Economic Advisory Board November 7, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois.
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

(AP) - President-elect Obama is putting hope on hold.

In two appearances since he was elected, Obama has emphasized the monumental challenges the country faces and warned against expectations that he will bring a quick fix.

The change he promised on the campaign trail will come, he told an eager nation, but it will take some time.

"We are facing the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime," Obama said at a news conference Friday.

President-elect Obama holds first press conference
President-elect Barack Obama speaks to the press on November 07, 2008 in Chicago. Obama vowed Friday that "immediately on taking office I am going to confront the economic crisis head-on."
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

Obama faces war and recession, and an ambitious list of campaign promises like tax cuts, expanded health care and a new approach to energy.

No president can do it all at once, and politically Obama needs the country to be patient so it isn't disappointed when he doesn't deliver monumental change overnight.

"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," he said.

His 10-week transition period cuts both ways.

Obama has the luxury of looking and sounding presidential without being held accountable for decisions. But the economy could keep sliding as he stands by helplessly, building tremendous pressure from frustrated Americans impatiently wanting the change he promised.

A car displays the phrase 'Yes We Did'
A car in Minneapolis displays the phrase 'Yes We Did' following the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

He wants to reassure the country that his campaign pledges are sincere and that he can heal the economy, eventually, as president. But he won't be president for another 70 days, as he has noted, and he cannot jump in and start dictating policy now.

Days into the transition, Obama began to put on the cloak of the presidency. He addressed the media and the country Friday with the appearance of a White House news conference, surrounded by accomplished Washington hands to help him lead the transition and, eventually, the country.

The first-term senator, a mere four years removed from the Illinois Statehouse, is getting used to the new formality of his life. He used to insist that senior aides call him "Barack," but he's starting to turn in response when they address him as "Mr. President-elect."

Obama has been using most of his time to study up and prepare for the pressures that lie ahead. Advisers describe a man who is keenly aware of the strengths and weaknesses he brings to the job, and is eager to soak up expertise from others.

He met with economic experts from government, business and academia Friday and asked to begin receiving top-secret international intelligence immediately upon becoming president-elect.

"My expectation is that he lowers the bar and buys the time. There is no reason to create any undue expectations right now."

Daily intelligence briefings began Thursday and continued through the weekend, even as he was supposed to be resting up after the grueling two-year campaign.

He's also set aside time daily to return calls arranged through President Bush's State Department to foreign leaders reaching out to him.

He has kept up his daily workouts and tried to return to some of the family routine that he often said was his biggest sacrifice of the campaign.

The morning after the election, he ate breakfast with his daughters and planned to take them to school. But he abandoned the trip because staff feared it would create pandemonium around the girls he tries to protect. On Saturday, he took his wife, Michelle, out on a date.

He later attended parent-teacher conferences at the girls' school, trailed by reporters and Secret Service. Excited onlookers hoping for a glimpse of the soon-to-be first couple leaving the building had to pass through metal detectors for the privilege of standing on the far side of the street.

Security, always tight around Obama, became more intense this week. He delivered his election night address behind an eight-foot wall of bulletproof glass, and a Counter Assault Team of agents toting automatic rifles is a regular part of his motorcade.

En route to the FBI building, a couple in a tan car learned the price of trying to drive through the motorcade. Secret Service agents cut them off while the CAT squad aimed its guns at the occupants. The driver and passenger raised their hands until the agents backed off and the motorcade sped away.

Before emerging from behind a curtain Friday to address the media, Obama remarked to aides that the event felt very different from the many news conferences he held as a candidate. Indeed, it was - his words had new power to move markets or create an international incident.

It was different for the reporters, too, many of whom had traveled with him for months and had enjoyed a more casual rapport. Reporters dressed formally and solemnly rose to their feet when he entered the room, per presidential tradition.

"Oh, wow," Obama commented as he walked to a podium marked with an eagle seal and the words, "The Office of the President Elect."

Behind him, a White House-like blue curtain, eight American flags and the presence of his vice president-elect, incoming chief of staff and more than a dozen economic advisers added to the presidential feel.

The news conference was briefer than most at the White House - Obama took just nine questions in a Q-and-A that lasted under 15 minutes after his opening statement. But he handled it like he'd been at it for a long time, avoiding specifics or direct answers when it served him and showing a sense of humor.

He joked that a lot of shelter dogs like the one his family would like to adopt are "mutts like me," a show of wit and self-deprecation that could help dampen his reputation for being aloof.

While nearly every word he spoke publicly during the last weeks of the campaign rolled in front of him on a teleprompter, Obama appeared looser and more relaxed with the pressure of the campaign lifted. He smiled broadly throughout the appearance and was free to speak from the cuff.

He committed one gaffe by joking that he wasn't speaking to any dead ex-presidents, akin to Nancy Reagan. The former first lady had consulted with astrologers during her husband's presidency, but did not hold conversations with the dead.

The joke about a figure revered by Republicans was a misstep for a candidate who has promised respect for the opposing party - he called her afterward to apologize - but it wasn't anything that would threaten major damage to his presidency.

The market temporarily fluctuated after Obama delivered some of his sobering words, that there will be a great deal of hard work to restore the economy's health. But it righted itself to close near its best levels of the day.

"My expectation is that he lowers the bar and buys the time," said George Shipp, chief investment officer at Scott & Stringfellow, an investment banking firm in Richmond, Va. "Certainly there is no reason to create any undue expectations right now."

Obama's campaign was so successful financially that he was able to give generous severance pay to all his full-time employees across the country.

They received four weeks' pay, health care coverage through the end of the year and were allowed to keep their laptops and BlackBerries as long as they reported the value of the equipment as income.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.