US President-elect Barack Obama has promised to act "swiftly" as soon as he takes office to confront the economic crisis head on, during his first news conference since his historic election.
US President-elect Barack Obama (C) speaks to the press in Chicago. Obama said he would act "swiftly" as soon as he takes office to confront the economic crisis head on, during his first news conference since his historic election.(AFP/Stan Honda)
"We are facing the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime. We will have to act swiftly to resolve it," a sober Obama said Friday, with members of his heavy-hitting team of economic advisors standing behind him.
"Immediately after I become president, I will confront this economic crisis head on by taking all necessary steps to ease the credit crisis, help hard-working families and restore growth and prosperity."
Obama however downplayed expectations of a swift rollout of cabinet-level officials, including secretary of the treasury and secretary of state, saying he would move with "deliberate haste" to get the decisions right.
He thanked President George W. Bush for his offer of a smooth transition of power and signalled he would not attempt to intervene in economic policy before his inauguration on January 20.
The press conference reflected a shift in tone towards Obama after the more informal intensity of the election campaign, as reporters stood when he entered the room hosting the press conference and addressed him as "Sir" or "Mr President-elect."
He said that "with certainty" he would back a stimulus package passed in the US Congress before or after his inauguration, and that he would put a high priority on initiatives to help the crippled US auto industry.
Obama also confirmed that he had been sent a letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad following his victory over Republican John McCain on Tuesday.
"I am aware that the letter was sent," he said. "I will be reviewing the letter from President Ahmadinejad and we will respond appropriately."
However he said that Iran's development of nuclear weapons was "unacceptable" and the Islamic Republic must end its "support of terrorist organizations."
Known for his gifted oratory on the campaign trail, Obama made an uncharacteristic gaffe at the press conference when asked if he had spoken with any former presidents to prepare for the job.
"In terms of speaking to former presidents, I've spoken to all of them that are living," Obama said. He then went on to name a dead president, Abraham Lincoln, as an inspiration, prefacing the remark with a reference to a former first lady's alleged occult activities.
"I didn't want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any seances. I have re-read some of Lincoln's writings, who's always an extraordinary inspiration."
Obama later called former president Ronald Reagan 87-year-old widow "to apologize for the careless and off-handed remark he made during today's press conference," Obama transition team spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said.
The press conference, following Obama's meeting with his economic advisors, came on another brutal day for the US economy.
Official figures showed the US unemployment rate rose to its highest level since 1994 in October, 6.5 percent.
The Labor Department said 240,000 jobs had been cut in October, the 10th straight month of job losses, and new revisions meant that a whopping 651,000 workers have lost their livelihoods in the past three months alone.
But Obama's aides said there would be no further personnel announcements Friday, following the incoming president's selection Thursday of combative Illinois congressman Rahm Emanuel as his White House chief of staff.
Obama started his third day as president-elect with a parent-teacher meeting at his two daughters' school with his wife Michelle, a reminder that the next First Family will be the youngest in decades.
He held more meetings to plan his transition to the White House, and was getting his now-daily classified intelligence briefing from the CIA.
On Friday afternoon Obama called foreign heads of government from Egypt, Italy, Pakistan, Poland, Spain and Saudi Arabia, after speaking Thursday with leaders of Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Mexico and South Korea.
The global financial crisis, the Afghanistan war, climate change and the North Korean and Iranian nuclear crises dominated the conversations, according to accounts from the various capitals.
Most of the allied leaders are to attend an emergency summit of 20 nations on the economic crisis in Washington on November 15. The White House has said Obama will not be at the event.
Several people mentioned as potential Treasury secretary, including Lawrence Summers and former Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker, were at the meeting on the economy, which also included vice president-elect Joseph Biden.