It's Still the Economy: Obama's First Press Conference

The economy is job one — but for now, it’s President Bush’s job.

So said Sen. Barack Obama at his first press conference as president-elect, with 18 heavyweight economic and political advisers behind them. (See the end of the post for the list.)

“It is not going to be quick and easy for us to dig ourselves out of the hole we are in,” Obama said toward the end of his remarks, which began with a catalog of grim economic data. “But America is a strong and resilient nation.”

As expected, he didn’t name any new nominees. He called for a stimulus package “sooner rather than later” and said that if one isn’t passed in a lame-duck session this year, “it will be the first thing I get done as president of the United States.”

Still, he cautioned that he remains in a supporting role for some time (10-1/2 weeks, to be precise). “The United States has only one government and one president at a time,” Obama said. “That government is the current administration.”

The markets seemed to be expecting something more dazzling, but took the appearance more or less in stride: The Dow losing about half of the 250-point gain it had recorded by the time Obama began speaking.

Asked how he would handle disagreements with the sitting administration, Obama sidestepped the question -- but showed that he realizes it may not prove a walk in the park to have both houses of Congress under his party's control. "I'm not going to anticipate problems," Obama said. Where there is disagreement, he suggested, it may not come between Democrats and Republicans as much as "between people of the same party."

In laying out his priorities, Obama said, unsurprisingly, that a "rescue plan for the middle class" was most urgent.

For the stimulus bill, he rattled off several elements that have wide support among Democrats on Capitol Hill, as well as many in the business community: an extension of unemployment benefits, aid to automakers -- "the backbone of American manufacturing" -- and financial assistance to state and local governments, to avoid layoffs and tax hikes.

Obama called it important to review the bailout efforts the government has already made, but other than calling for assistance to homeowners facing foreclosure, he didn't go into detail about how he might change it. He stressed that his longer-term economic policy is to strengthen the economy and create jobs. "A new president can do a tremendous amount to improve confidence," Obama said.

In the Q&A, he parried a few questions more or less deftly, declining to say how he would respond to a congratulatory letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or to go into detail about the state of U.S. intelligence.

Oh, and that puppy he's getting for his kids? They'd like to adopt a shelter dog, but may have to go with a hypoallergenic one to avoid problems with one daughter's allergies.

Finally, for those of you who like to read tea leaves, here's the list of VIPs standing behind Obama at his press conference, courtesy of the transition team:

Standing Order From Right to Left:

  • William Daley - Chairman of the Midwest, JP Morgan Chase; Former Secretary, U.S. Dept of Commerce, 1997-2000
  • Robert Reich - University of California, Berkeley; Former Secretary, U.S. Dept of Labor, 1993-1997
  • Penny Pritzker - CEO, Classic Residence by Hyatt
  • Roger Ferguson - President and CEO, TIAA-CREF and former Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve
  • Lawrence Summers - Harvard University; Managing Director, D.E. Shaw; Former Secretary, U.S. Dept of Treasury, 1999-2001
  • Anne Mulcahy - Chairman and CEO, Xerox
  • Richard Parsons - Chairman of the Board, Time Warner
  • Paul Volcker - Former Chairman, U.S. Federal Reserve 1979-1987
  • Rahm Emanuel - United States Representative (IL-05)
  • Vice President Elect Biden
  • Jennifer Granholm - Governor, State of Michigan
  • Robert Rubin - Director and Senior Counselor, Citigroup; Former Secretary, U.S. Dept of Treasury, 1995-1999
  • David Bonior - Member House of Representatives (Michigan) 1977-2003
  • Laura Tyson - (Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley; Former Chairman, National Economic Council, 1995-1996; Former Chairman, President’s Council of Economic Advisors, 1993-1995)
  • Antonio Villaraigosa - Mayor, City of Los Angeles
  • William Donaldson - Former Chairman of the SEC, 2003-2005
  • Eric Schmidt - Chairman and CEO, Google
  • Roel Campos - Former Commissioner of the SEC
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