Absent Obama still a presence in the capital

By: AP
By: AP

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President-elect Barack Obama is an invisible force as foreign leaders and Congress convene separately in Washington, the economy at center stage.

One sentiment runs below the crosscurrents as a summit of world leaders wrestled with a global crisis this weekend and Congress in the week ahead struggles with rising unemployment and an ailing auto industry: What would Obama do?

Obama is staying away, ensconced in Chicago, unwilling to make any public show of political influence before he is sworn in to office Jan. 20. Indeed, his break with Congress will be complete on Sunday when he officially resigns his Illinois Senate seat.

Obama is being especially cautious about the economic summit, letting President George W. Bush represent the nation. But in the Democratic radio address Saturday, Obama subtly made the point that the summit was only a beginning. "I'm glad President Bush has initiated this process because our global economic crisis requires a coordinated global response," he said.

Obama was more direct with Congress. He urged lawmakers to "pass at least a down-payment on a rescue plan that will create jobs, relieve the squeeze on families, and help get the economy growing again."

"If Congress does not pass an immediate plan that gives the economy the boost it needs, I will make it my first order of business as president," Obama said.

No major economic breakthroughs are expected and, for Obama, the challenges he faces upon becoming president might seem a bit clearer after the foreign leaders and Congress pack up and go home.

"You can imagine the difficulty from the perspective of the participants," said David Lewis, an expert on the presidency at Vanderbilt University. "You don't want to put a lot of effort into doing something when you know that the arrival of a next administration might undo all the work you have done or might undercut an administration that you want to see what they have to offer."

Still, summit participants on Saturday embraced broad principles to strengthen international monitoring of markets and to beef up rules about how companies value their assets, key steps designed to identify risky investing.

Looking ahead to the new president, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said of Obama: "I have not the slightest doubt that we will be able to proceed along the way that we set out today. This is a reasonable approach that the new president will surely support."

While Obama has laid out an agenda for tackling the economic gloom, the question facing Congress and the international community is whether his prescriptions will be enough.

Obama has proposed a $175 billion economic recovery plan that includes tax cuts, help for states and spending on public works nationwide. But already, economists, labor leaders and some members of Congress are tossing around figures of $300 billion or more. Obama aides are signaling flexibility.

"That was proposed in mid-October," a senior Obama adviser said of the president-elect's plan. "We'll look at it in mid-January and see where the economy is." The adviser spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal policy thinking publicly.

Congressional leaders are making it clear that any massive recovery plan will have to wait until next year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in letter to Republican leader Mitch McConnell on Friday, indicated the Senate's work this coming week will be limited to proposals to increase unemployment benefits and to the more complicated task of rescuing Detroit's automakers with a $25 billion emergency loan.

In an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes" that will air Sunday, Obama said his transition team is monitoring how the Treasury Department is distributing the first share of a $700 billion rescue package for Wall Street. "We are getting the information that's required and we're making suggestions in some circumstances about how we think they might approach some of these problems," Obama said. Asked if administration officials were listening, Obama said: "We'll find out."

On the global front, Obama has acknowledged the need for a coordinated international response to the crisis. And he did spell out his economic proposals during the campaign. What's more, he and his aides have been in constant communication with leaders in the Democratic-controlled Congress. And he sent former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a Democrat, and former Iowa Congressman Jim Leach, a Republican, as his envoys to the economic summit.

"People see Barack Obama as reaching out to the rest of the world, and that's important," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Friday. "We look forward to working with him on the domestic economic policies in our country and in your country to see what common ground we can build up."

Bush on Saturday wryly acknowledged that many at the summit might have had their eyes trained on the change of administrations.

"Some of you may not have heard yet, but I am retiring," Bush said at the close of the summit Saturday. "But I told the leaders this: that President-elect Obama's transition team has been fully briefed on what we intended to do here at this meeting."

He added: "I hope it was good for them to hear that even though we're from different political parties, that I believe it's in our country's interest that he succeed."

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Associated Press writers Michael Astor and David Stringer contributed to this report.

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