CHICAGO // Inheriting an economy in peril, the President-elect Barack Obama warned yesterday 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 in his first press conference since winning the presidency, 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," Mr Obama said at his first news conference since winning the presidency on Tuesday. The main priority, he said, was 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, Mr Obama said "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, he 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, Mr Obama spoke for just 20 minutes and broke no ground with new policy announcements or disclosures of who would be in his Cabinet. Constrained by the fact he will not take office until January 20, Mr Obama deferred to George W 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", Mr Obama declined to say how he would deal with Iran, whose president sent a letter of congratulations to Mr 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 20," 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. 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 stabilise financial markets. Mr 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".
He spoke after he and the Vice President-elect Joe Biden met privately with economic advisers to discuss ways to stabilise the economy. Mr Obama 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.
"Some of the choices that we're going to make are going to be difficult. 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." *AP