CHICAGO – Inheriting an economy in peril, President-elect Obama warned on Friday that the nation faces the challenge of a lifetime and pledged he would act urgently to help Americans devastated by lost jobs, disappearing savings and homes seized in foreclosure. But the man who promised change cautioned against hopes of quick solutions.
"It is not going to be easy for us to dig ourselves out of the hole that we are in," Obama said at his first news conference since winning the presidency on Tuesday.
The No. 1 priority, Obama said, is to get Congress to approve an economic stimulus plan that would extend jobless benefits, send food aid to the poor, dispatch Medicaid funds to states and spend tens of billions of dollars on public works projects. If the plan is not approved this month, in a special session of Congress, Obama said that "it will be the first thing I get done as president of the United States."
In his first appearance since a jubilant election-night celebration, Obama sought to project an air of calm and reassurance to a deeply worried nation. He stood in a presidential-like setting with an array of eight American flags and a lectern showing a presidential seal above the words "The Office of the President Elect." The stage behind him was lined with advisers he had summoned, his economic brain trust.
Almost 20 minutes late to his first meeting with reporters, Obama spoke for just 20 minutes and broke no ground with new policy announcements or disclosures of who would be in his Cabinet. In lighthearted moments, he joked about seances with dead presidents and the appeal of animal shelter dogs that are "mutts like me."
Constrained by the fact he will not take office until Jan. 20, Obama deferred to President Bush and his economic team on major decisions. "The United States has only one government and one president at a time," he said.
Declaring he would not respond to issues "in a knee-jerk fashion," Obama declined to say how he would deal with Iran, whose president sent a letter of congratulations to Obama. "I want to be very careful that we are sending the right signals to the world as a whole that I am not the president and I won't be until January 20th," he said.
A new jobless report offered no comfort. The unemployment rate climbed to a 14-year high in October,and 10.1 million people were out of work. In Detroit, General Motors reported a huge third-quarter loss and said it may run out of cash next year. Ford planned more job cuts after burning through billions of dollars of its own.
While standing back as long as Bush is president, Obama said his advisers would keep close watch on the administration's efforts to unlock frozen credit and stabilize financial markets. Obama said he wanted to make sure the Bush administration was "protecting taxpayers, helping homeowners and not unduly rewarding the management of financial firms that are receiving government assistance."
Obama spoke after he and Vice President-elect Joe Biden met privately with economic advisers to discuss ways to stabilize the economy.
"We are facing the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime, and we're going to have to act swiftly to resolve it," Obama said.
He said he was confident that "a new president can have an enormous impact," but he tempered that optimism by adding, "I do not underestimate the enormity of the task that lies ahead."
"Immediately after I become president, I will confront this economic challenge head-on by taking all necessary steps to ease the credit crisis, help hardworking families, and restore growth and prosperity," Obama said.
"Some of the choices that we're going to make are going to be difficult," he said. "It is not going to be quick. It's not going to be easy for us to dig ourselves out of the hole that we are in." But he said he was confident the country could do it.
Obama left the door open to the possibility that economic conditions might prompt him to change his tax plan that would give a break to most families but raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 annually.
"I think that the plan that we've put forward is the right one, but obviously over the next several weeks and months, we're going to be continuing to take a look at the data and see what's taking place in the economy as a whole," Obama said.
Democratic congressional leaders want to pass a broad economic aid package in a postelection session later this month, but prospects appear dim because of Bush's opposition.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., the majority leader, said the House wouldn't reconvene for a postelection session unless Bush did an about-face and drops his opposition. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., isn't sure such a package could get through the Senate either, he added.
"Clearly there's no point in us doing something if the administration's going to take a position that they're not going to sign something," Hoyer said.
If Congress and Bush can't come to terms on a stimulus bill this fall, lawmakers have spoken with Obama's team about a Plan B: The new Congress could quickly pass an economic aid package when it reconvenes in early January, readying it for Obama's signature as his first official act after being inaugurated, Democratic leadership aides said.
That measure would probably be just the first installment of a broader package, including a middle class tax cut, that Congress could pass separately after Obama is in the White House.
Terence Hunt and Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this report from Washington.