Barack's First Test
November 7, 2008
Facing the media, Presdient-elect Barack Obama holds his first post-election news conference amidst growing urgency on all fronts, especially the economy. Huddling with his transition economic advisory board, including billionaire investor Warren Buffet, former Treasury secretaries, Lawrence Sumners, Robert Rubin, etc., Obama hopes to reassure jittery voters about his approach to managing the nation’s financial crisis. Press conferences are more dicey than presidential debates, where candidates typically call on stump speeches and predigested answers. Impromptu news conferences carry more risks, where newly elected officials display wit and spontaneity. “We’re not starting from nowhere,” said former Clinton treasury secretary Lawence Sumners, referring to President George W. Bush’s economic recovery effort headed by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.
Sumners has been named as part of a short-list of possible picks for treasury secretary. Sumners comes with some recent baggage, forced out as president of Harvard University for incendiary remarks about genetic inferiority of women. Barack faces tough questions, especially on the economy, where the Dow Jones Industrials shed about 1,000 points since his Nov. 4. victory. With the economy in recession and GM and Ford posting record multi-billion dollar losses, Barack won’t have an easy time calming jittery markets. While supporting Bush’s $700 billion bailout of the nation’s financial institutions, there’s growing uncertainty whether the plan can jolt the economy out of its paralysis. Today’s unemployment report showed the nation’s joblessness rate jumping from September’s 6.1% to October’s 6.5%, bad news for the upcoming holiday shopping season and overall economy.
Obama also faces tough questions on foreign policy, especially on what to do with the Iraq War, rapidly approaching its six-year anniversary. Brewing uncertainty about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Russia’s warning to bomb U.S. missile sites in Poland and the Czech Republic are growing concerns for the president-elect. Assembling his economic advisory team attempts calm jittery nerves that the president-elect—while not president—is working on fixing the nation’s problems. Before inaugurated Jan. 20, 2009, there’s little Obama can do other than coordinate with Bush his already existing economic strategy. On foreign policy, there’s little Obama can do other than begin to select the experts to deal with gathering threats to U.S. national security. Barack can’t appear that he’s conducting foreign policy as president-elect, deferring to Bush until he leaves office next January.
Barack played it safe at his first press conference, a short-lived event, picking reporters from a predetermined list. Unlike prior post-election press conferences, he limited his questioning to a few friendly reporters, refusing to give the press free rein to open it up. After so much rancor in the campaign, Barack owed it to the press to answer more questions but sought to cut off questioning after a few brief answers. “We’re going to have to act swiftly to resolve it,” said Obama about the current financial mess. Flanked by Vice President-elect Joe Biden and a team of economic advisors, Obama kept his responses short. He smiled when asked by an Illinois reporter about whether he settled on the breed of the White House dog or whether his children would attend public or private schools. On more serious matters, Barack was reluctant to elaborate on the nature of his security briefings.
While there will be plenty of opportunities for more press conferences, Barack was mindful of his position as president-elect. He didn’t want to signal to the White House that he was taking over before sworn in by Supreme Court Chief Justice John J. Roberts next year. No prominent print or broadcast journalists were given a chance to take a shot at the president-elect. Barack’s team, now headed by his chief of staff, former Clinton advisor Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), seems content to plan out events over the course of the transition process. “Immediately after I become president, I will confront this economic crisis head-on by taking all necessary steps to ease the credit crisis, help hard-working families and restore growth and prosperity,” Barack tried to reassure nervous onlookers. Economic issues are clearly weighing in on voters hoping for some positive developments.
Barack’s first press conference could have done more to debrief voters on a wide-range of issues but was instead focused on economic matters. Asked how he’d respond to a congratulatory letter by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Barack said he was studying a response. During the campaign he was criticized by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for suggesting he’d talk with rogue foreign leaders directly. Barack didn’t deal with recent reports about Israel’s readiness to answer a growing nuclear threat by possibly bombing nuclear enrichment sites, should diplomacy fail to stop Iran’s enrichment program. Saying he’d pick his Cabinet with “deliberate haste,” Barack signaled he wouldn’t be pressured in jumping the gun. While there’s growing speculation about his picks, especially for Defense and State, he’s got 11 weeks to take his time and get it right.
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