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A taste of power for Obama

By Rupert Cornwell in Washington

An especially delicate and high-stakes US presidential transition is now under way, as Barack Obama prepares to hold his first post-election press conference today before travelling to Washington to meet George Bush at the White House.

The meeting with reporters in Chicago – where the President-elect is laying the groundwork for his administration – will give the first clues about the direction the first African-American president intends to take the country.

It was not clear whether he would announce any major cabinet appointments – in particular the name of his Treasury Secretary, who will be the key figure in tackling the economic crisis, the biggest immediate challenge facing the 44th President. But the urgency of the moment was underscored by a second day of heavy falls on Wall Street, more than erasing the gains made amid the anticipation of his victory on Tuesday.

As of yesterday, his only top-level appointment Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff. But his campaign chief strategist David Axelrod was reported to have accepted the position of senior adviser, and senior campaign aide Robert Gibbs that of White House press secretary.

Yesterday, Mr Obama held meetings at the Chicago offices of the FBI. He also received his first daily "presidential" intelligence briefing similar to the one received by Mr Bush, a rite of passage from election candidate to President-elect.

In Washington, the federal government has provided 100,000 square feet of downtown office space to the Obama transition operation. Senior Obama advisers have already undergone fast-track security vetting so they can attend important meetings of the outgoing administration. At the same time, mid-level career employees, who keep their jobs even when administrations change, have taken on extra work to prevent any disruption in government.

The Monday meeting at the White House between the future first couple and the Bushes will be their first since the election. But Mr Obama has already called Mr Bush, while his wife Michelle was in touch with Laura Bush on Wednesday, seeking her advice about the role of First Lady.

For the second day running, Mr Bush pledged his full co-operation with his successor, to make this transfer of power – which comes at an especially fraught moment in modern US history – as smooth and peaceful as possible.

"We face economic challenges that will not pause to let a new president settle in," Mr Bush said."This will also be America's first wartime presidential transition in four decades," in which "violent extremists" would like nothing better than to attack America.

Mr Bush's comments, under a grey sky on the South Lawn of the White House, had the feel of an early goodbye, 75 days before he steps down as the most unpopular incumbent in modern times. He stood with his cabinet, the First Lady and his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, and his wife, and he grew emotional by the end. Mr Bush's wife, Laura, leaned over to give him a hug.

After generally staying out of the 2008 campaign despite almost daily attacks from Mr Obama, the Bush White House also signalled it will soon start a co-ordinated defence of its record on education, energy, the economy and other issues.

But the President made clear he will tolerate no pranks, telling staff to conduct themselves "with decency and professionalism". According to one (probably apocryphal) tale, many of his own aides found the letter W – the middle initial in Mr Bush's name – had been removed from their computer keyboards, as a joke by outgoing Bill Clinton staffers.

Belfast Telegraph


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