Obama tackles daunting crises on first day

President Barack Obama on Wednesday plunged into the multiple economic and national security crises afflicting the United States, as grim realities intruded on historic inauguration euphoria in his first full day in the Oval Office.

The president was set to meet his high-powered team of economic advisers as he tries to ram an $800-billion-plus stimulus package through Congress designed to kick-start the staggering economy and create millions of jobs.

Then, Obama was due to call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military advisers, including top war commander David Petraeus, for his first briefing as president on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With the world eagerly awaiting the first flesh on the bones of the Obama foreign policy, the new US leader called Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to assure him he would work towards a “durable peace” following the Gaza conflict.

The new US leader told Abbas that the Palestinian president was the first foreign leader he called since taking office, said Palestinian spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeina.

After waltzing late into the night with wife Michelle at 10 inaugural balls, the president attended a multi-denominational national prayer service called to seek divine blessings on his administration.

The Obamas sat in a high-powered front pew of Washington National Cathedral alongside Vice-President Joseph Biden and his wife, Jill, and former president Bill Clinton and soon-to-be secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

“Oh God, we ask that your hand of wisdom, grace, courage, and protection will be upon, underneath, and around our 44th president, President Barack Obama,” prayed Reverend Otis Moss, pastor of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio.

In one of the first full moves of his presidency, Obama late on Tuesday issued a document to prosecutors at military tribunals in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, seeking a suspension of trials of war on terror suspects.

On Wednesday, a judge overseeing the military tribunal of Canadian Omar Khadr at the camp ordered the trial suspended for 120 days in line with Obama’s request.

The decision will halt until at least May the military trials of five alleged plotters of the September 11 2001 attacks, as well as that of Khadr.

Within days, Obama is expected to issue an executive order requiring the closure of the camp, in line with his campaign promises, but it was not clear how long it would take to shutter the controversial facility.

The president was set to huddle with his top economic advisers as he plots a way to navigate a massive $800-billion-plus stimulus package through the US Congress in a bid to salvage the US economy.

On Capitol Hill, Obama’s pick for Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, faced a grilling at his Senate confirmation hearing, which was delayed by Republicans after it emerged he failed to pay $34 000 in due taxes in past tax returns.

Geithner issued a contrite apology last week over the omission, which he has since corrected and was expected to have an uncomfortable time before the Senate Finance Committee though ultimately to prevail.

Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said on Wednesday that given the depth of the crisis, Geithner was widely acknowledged as the expert best poised to cope.

“He is just right for the job, I think there is a broad consensus, both Democrats and Republicans, that he is the right guy for the job,” Schumer told MSNBC television.

After meeting his economic team, Obama, in his first formal day as commander-in-chief of the US military, was set to meet the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A defence official told Agence France-Presse the meeting would also include Petraeus, the US commander in south-west Asia and the architect of former president George Bush’s troop surge in Iraq, which Obama initially opposed.

Claiming his place in history
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama vowed to call in top military brass on his first day in office and order them to formulate a plan to get US troops out of Iraq within 16 months.

The president said in his inaugural address on Tuesday that “we will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan”.

Also Wednesday, the Senate was expected to vote to confirm Clinton, Obama’s former fierce Democratic primary opponent, as secretary of state.

On Tuesday, Obama claimed his place in history as leader of a nation stained by the legacies of slavery and racial segregation, and told Americans they have to pull together to pick their way out of raging storms.

“We have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” Obama (47) said in a sombre inaugural address to a stunning two-million-strong crowd that took sharp issue with the two-term Republican presidency of Bush.

“Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many.

“They will not be met easily, or in a short span of time. But know this, America—they will be met.”

Obama takes office amidst the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, with tens of thousands of US troops locked in Iraq and Afghanistan and a nuclear showdown with Iran looming.

The inauguration on the steps of the US Capitol, which was partially built with slave labour, broke the highest racial barrier in the United States and goes some way to reconciling civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s dream of racial unity.

Obama vowed to reclaim America’s place at the head of global powers, and signalled he would reject anti-terror tactics used by the Bush administration, which critics say infringe US values.—AFP

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