Obama urges Bush, Congress to pass a stimulus package

The president-elect also pushes for a $25 billion bailout of the auto industry before he takes office.

Charles Dharapak/AP
In his first press conference as president-elect, Obama said he would move quickly to resolve 'the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime.'

Barack Obama isn't president yet. He doesn't want to appear to be trying to usurp President Bush's authority. But he's still going to speak his mind – politely – about some things he thinks the government should do to jump-start the ailing US economy.

That was the overall impression President-elect Obama appeared to be trying to give in his first public remarks following his election as the nation's 44th occupant of the Oval Office.

In particular, Obama said that he believes that Congress should pass, and the current president should sign, some sort of broad government spending package as an attempt at economic stimulus.

"I want to see a stimulus package sooner rather than later. If it does not get done in a lame-duck session, it will be the first thing I do as president of the United States," said Obama during a press conference held at Chicago's Hilton Hotel.

Obama also urged the current administration to accelerate the provision of $25 billion in Energy Department loans for the auto industry. This money, already approved by both Congress and the White House, is intended to provide cash for hard-pressed US automakers to design and engineer new fuel-efficient vehicles.

Assistance for state and local governments struggling from declining tax revenues will also be high on Obama's agenda in his initial days in office.

"We are facing the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime and we're going to have to move swiftly to resolve it," he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) of California has already called for a two-part economic stimulus package that would consist of a $100 billion package passed by a lame-duck session, followed by some sort of permanent tax cut after Obama's inauguration.

The first stimulus installment would include some kind of government-funded public-works effort as well as an extension of unemployment benefits.

Mr. Bush has said he is open to working with Congress on a stimulus package. But in the past he has opposed big US spending on new infrastructure, among other things.

"We've long said that the package that [House Democrats] have put forward so far was not something that we thought that we could support," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said on Nov. 6.

The stagecraft of the initial press conference of the Obama executive era was clearly intended to send the message that dealing with the economy will be his administration's No. 1 job.

Members of his economic transition advisory board filed out first, forming a large semicircle behind the podium from which the president-elect spoke.

"Immediately after I become president I am going to confront this economic crisis head on," said Obama.

Obama faces two conflicting imperatives regarding the nation's problems, according to presidential transition experts.

On the one hand, he's being pressured to jump right in and begin to formulate policy. On the other, he does not want to become saddled with responsibility for policies that he does not yet have the power to design and implement as he sees fit.

"He's taking office at a time of our most challenging transition since the Great Depression," said Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, at a Nov. 7 post-election seminar.

Perhaps Obama's biggest problem right now is unrealistic expectations, said Mr. West. To avoid a backlash of disappointment among voters, Obama may need to push at the beginning of his term for measures that can gain some bipartisan support and thus pass Congress relatively quickly.

"He can do that with a stimulus package," said West.

Obama is making the right move by assembling his White House team before moving on the cabinet, said Leon Panetta, who served in the White House as chief of staff under President Clinton.

In his first personnel move, Obama named Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel his chief of staff. But his next step should be assembling his economic team, in particular, naming his secretary of the Treasury.

"That's what America is looking for right now," said Mr. Panetta.

Obama, for his part, declined at his press conference to be drawn into speculation about possible Treasury picks. He will make cabinet appointments in due time, he said.

"I want to move with all deliberate haste. And I want to emphasize 'deliberate,' as well as 'haste‚' " he said.

Obama said that he had spoken with all living ex-presidents as well as the current president since Election Day. "They have all been very gracious," he said.

The president-elect was cautious in discussing his response to a lengthy congratulatory letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"Iran's development of a nuclear weapon is unacceptable.... I will be reviewing the letter and I will respond appropriately," said Obama.

And the president-elect noted that the choice of a White House dog is a "major issue" in the Obama household. While he promised his daughters they could have a dog if he won, one of them is diagnosed as allergic to dogs, so the new pet must be a breed that is "hypoallergenic," Obama said.

They would also like to get a shelter dog, but that may not be possible, given that most shelter dogs are "mutts like me," said Obama.

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