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Now president, Obama plans urgent first steps

He plans to shore up America’s stumbling economy and address pressing issues on the international front.

By Staff writer / January 20, 2009

The moment: Barack Obama laid his hand on the Lincoln Bible as Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath. Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle, held the Bible as his daughters watched.

Mark Wilson/AP

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Washington

President Obama is expected to use executive orders and the bully pulpit in his first days in office to mark a symbolic break from the policies of the past eight years.

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In taking the oath of office Tuesday, the 44th president of the United States, the first African-American to lead the country, used that pulpit to rally the citizenry to stand with him, calling for a “new era of responsibility” in the “midst of the crisis.” Noting the US is at war and the economy badly weakened, Mr. Obama called on Americans to “seize gladly” the duties before the nation during “this winter of our hardship.”

“Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new,” he said, as the sun shone and a chilly wind blew across the millions of people packing the Mall before him. “But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.”

Obama will begin his term with aggressive measures to shore up America’s stumbling economy, urging Congress to act quickly on what he calls “a bold, aggressive investment and recovery package,” his aides say. At the same time, he’ll call on banks that took federal bailout money to be more accountable and to start lending money more freely.

The new president will also move on the international front, ordering military leaders to prepare for a speedy withdrawal from Iraq and begin shutting down the detention center holding terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Aides say he will also make clear that working for peace in the Middle East will be a top priority.

“The symbolism of first acts is very important, and President Obama is fully aware of that,” says Gordon Smith of the Walker Institute for International and Area Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. “He’s signaling he’s very much concerned about his foreign-policy agenda as well as the financial crisis that’s confronting the United States. And in fact, he’s made it clear that addressing the financial crisis is also going to be an international endeavor that’s going to require cooperation from the world.”

Obama enjoys good will abroad, but by moving fast to close Guantánamo, analysts say, he can solidify that and instill confidence in his foreign-policy credentials.

“Guantánamo ... has become such a symbol of the failed policies of the Bush administration, and it undercuts and undermines our own efforts at stopping terrorism,” says Dr. Smith. “It will be important for him to demonstrate to skeptics at home and abroad that he’s capable of ... taking bold moves when necessary.”

In his inaugural address, Obama affirmed that traditional values are vital to his foreign policy. US military power was founded as much on “sturdy alliances and enduring convictions” as on “missiles and tanks” – and that earlier generations understood as much when they faced down fascism and communism, he said.

“They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please,” he said. “Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

On the domestic front, Obama called for a shift away from politics as usual, saying “the ground has shifted.” “Stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply,” he said. “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.”