With no day to bask, Obama begins to build his team
President-elect Barack Obama began moving Wednesday to build his administration and make good on his ambitious promises to point the United States in a different direction, as his commanding victory reordered the American political landscape and transfixed much of the nation and the world.
A day after becoming the first African-American to capture the presidency, Obama announced a transition team and prepared to name an ally as his White House chief of staff in his first steps toward assuming power. President George W. Bush vowed to work closely with Obama to ensure a smooth transition in the first handover since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the fourth-ranking House Democrat and a close friend of Obama's from Chicago, has been offered the job of chief of staff, and although he was said to be concerned about the effects on his family and giving up his influential role on Capitol Hill, many Democrats said they expected him to accept it. Obama named John Podesta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff, to lead his transition team along with Valerie Jarrett, a longtime adviser, and Pete Rouse, his Senate chief of staff.
In turning to Emanuel and Podesta, Obama sought out two of the hardest-hitting veterans of President Bill Clinton's administration, known for their deep Washington experience, savvy and no-holds-barred approach to politics. Neither is considered a practitioner of the "new politics" that Obama promised on the campaign trail to bring Republicans and Democrats together, suggesting that the cool and conciliatory new president is determined to demonstrate toughness from the beginning.
Obama stayed largely out of sight on Wednesday as Democrats counted their gains and Republicans stewed over what went wrong. The scope of his success underscored the nation's discontent with Bush's presidency. Obama captured an estimated 52 percent of the popular vote and 349 electoral votes to John McCain's 46 percent and 162 electoral votes, with Missouri and North Carolina still too close to call.
Obama also ushered in a wave of Democrats who strengthened his party's hold over Congress, picking up at least five seats in the Senate and 19 in the House. Republican senators in Alaska, Minnesota and Oregon were still clinging to razor-thin leads, including Ted Stevens of Alaska, fresh from his conviction on seven felony counts of failing to disclose $250,000 in gifts and services he received.
But the crowds had barely drifted out of Grant Park in Chicago after an exuberant late-night celebration of Obama's triumph before the rising sun brought fresh signs of the daunting burdens to come.
In Russia, President Dmitri Medvedev warned that he would deploy missiles if Obama built Bush's planned missile defense system in Eastern Europe. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai pleaded with Obama to halt air strikes that have been killing civilians. And in the United States, stock markets plunged again amid more dark economic news.
Still, the phenomenon of a black president of the world's most powerful nation captured public imagination in many quarters of the globe. Supporters in many cities in the United States chanted in the street and large crowds gathered at the headquarters of newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post seeking sold-out copies of historic front pages.
The congressional committee that puts together the inauguration ceremonies announced that the theme would be "A New Birth of Freedom," to mark the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, symbolically linking one president from Illinois who freed the slaves to another who broke the ultimate racial barrier in politics.
Even the departing Bush team recognized the power of the moment. "It will be a stirring sight to watch President Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their beautiful girls step through the doors of the White House," Bush told reporters in the Rose Garden. "I know millions of Americans will be overcome with pride at this inspiring moment that so many have awaited for so long."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise appearance at her department's daily briefing to congratulate Obama.
"As an African-American, I am especially proud because this is a country that's been through a long journey in terms of overcoming wounds and making race not the factor in our lives," Rice said. "That work is not done, but yesterday was obviously an extraordinary step forward."
The election proved so invigorating to the American public that turnout climbed to its highest rate in 44 years. Although experts differed in their projections as provisional and absentee ballots are counted, Michael McDonald, a voting expert at George Mason University, estimated that 133.3 million people had voted, eclipsing the 123 million who participated four years ago. That amounted to 62.6 percent of all eligible voters, just shy of the 62.8 percent in 1964.
With the election now behind them, the Bush and Obama teams began the delicate 77-day transition until inauguration. The General Services Administration turned over 120,000 square feet of office space in downtown Washington to the Obama transition team and select Obama advisers were due to be given interim security clearances.
Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph Biden Jr. will receive briefings Thursday from Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, and thereafter each morning by a pair of Central Intelligence Agency officials. Obama was given brief updates during the campaign, but aides said the sessions now would resemble the presidential daily briefing presented to Bush each morning.
Beyond choosing staff members, Obama must decide how active he intends to be in asserting leadership during the transition. Obama has conferred with congressional leaders about passing a $100 billion economic stimulus package in a lame-duck session the week of Nov. 17 to pay for public works projects, aid to cities and states, and unemployment, food stamp and heating benefits.
But congressional aides said that if Obama could not win agreement from Bush and Senate Republicans, they might scale the package back to about $60 billion, then come back in January with a broader plan.
Obama talked regularly with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. about the financial crisis during the campaign, but it remained unclear how closely he wants to coordinate action during the transition. The situation is so dire, it may demand immediate action from a newly elected president, but Obama advisers are wary of taking ownership over decisions made by Bush.
On his first morning as president-elect, Obama did something he rarely did the last 22 months: he woke up at home in Chicago and had breakfast with his wife, Michelle, and his two young daughters, Malia and Sasha. He spent the day out of view, making thank you calls and meeting with transition advisers, a decision aides said was intended to draw a line between the campaign and the coming task of governing. They said he canceled fireworks at the Tuesday night celebration to underscore the seriousness of the moment.
As he began to assemble his White House, Obama sought to persuade Emanuel to be his right hand. Emanuel, a top aide in the Clinton White House, did not accept immediately, with close associates saying he was torn between helping the new administration and staying in the House, where he aspires to become speaker. His wife and three children, who live in Chicago, are reluctant to move to Washington, friends said.
Emanuel would bring extensive legislative experience and instincts for how to run a White House, but his brash partisan past could undercut Obama's promise to bridge the divide in Washington. His unquestioned loyalty to Obama is a powerful asset to the president-elect.
While waiting to settle the matter with Emanuel, Obama went ahead and announced his transition team, to be led by Podesta, Jarrett and Rouse. They will be helped by a 12-member board, including Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona, former Commerce Secretary William Daley, former Energy Secretary Federico Peña and former Environmental Protection Agency director Carol Browner.
Washington was abuzz with speculation over who would join the new administration, some of it informed, much of it guesswork. Democrats close to the Obama team said they believed the likeliest choices for Treasury secretary would be Lawrence Summers, who held the post in the Clinton administration, and Timothy Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
In the national security arena, much depends on whether Obama decides to ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates to stay to demonstrate bipartisanship. If Obama decides against it, or Gates turns him down, Democrats see former Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre and former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig as two candidates for the Pentagon.
Without Gates, Obama might want to tap a Republican for the State Department, perhaps including Senators Richard Lugar of Indiana or Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, advisers said. If Gates stays, some Democrats said, Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee who gave Obama the platform at the 2004 convention that vaulted him to national fame, is a leading choice to be secretary of state.
For national security adviser, Obama might pick between James Steinberg, a former deputy national security adviser, and Gregory Craig, a former State Department official. Danzig and Dennis Ross, a longtime Middle East envoy, are also mentioned. Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state and early Obama adviser, is often described as a possible deputy national security adviser or ambassador to the United Nations.
Democrats said they had heard that Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee chairman, who is a doctor, might be a candidate for secretary of health and human services; Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina may be considered for secretary of housing and urban development; and Penny Pritzker, a Chicago business tycoon and Obama's national finance chairwoman, could be tapped for commerce secretary.
While Bush invited his successor-to-be to visit him at the White House, Obama's advisers said that he had no immediate plans to travel to Washington and that he planned to chart out his new administration largely from Chicago. He does not plan to attend the global economic summit in Washington called by Bush for Nov. 15. But advisers did not rule out the possibility that he would meet with some visiting leaders, perhaps over dinner or at a reception.
"The one thing he is not going to do is let anyone think he's undermining the president," said Craig, who has advised Obama on foreign policy. "There's only one president, and he'll take pains to make sure nothing he does is taken as undermining President Bush."