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On First Day in Office, Obama Tackles the Economy, Iraq

January 21, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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On his first full day in office, President Barack Obama set to work on the top issues facing his administration including the economy and the war in Iraq and signed an executive order on ethics for White House employees. Kwame Holman reports.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama got down to work today on his first full day in office. His immediate priorities were the major challenges facing his presidency: the economy and the war in Iraq.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: At about 8:30 this morning, Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office for the first time as president of the United States.

A short time later, Mr. Obama traveled to Washington National Cathedral for a multi-denominational prayer service. He was joined by the first lady, Michelle Obama, the vice president, Joe Biden, and his wife, Jill.

Also joining them in the first row was former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, who later in the day won Senate approval to become secretary of state.

The new president and vice president were welcomed by the dean of the cathedral, the Reverend Samuel Lloyd III.

REV. SAMUEL LLOYD III: Now the administration goes to work. This is their first full day on the job, and the best way we can imagine to begin is by praying with them and for them.

We have given them a great deal to do.

KWAME HOLMAN: The service included scripture readings…

REV. CYNTHIA HALE: And you shall be like a water garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt. You shall raise up the foundations of many generations. You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets.

KWAME HOLMAN: … and performances of song, including a rendition of “Amazing Grace” by singer Wintley Phipps.

WINTLEY PHIPPS (singing): Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

Sermon, songs for Obama

KWAME HOLMAN: The Washington D.C.-based Children of the Gospel Choir sang "He's Got the Whole World in his Hands," with the president singing along from his pew.

CHOIR (singing): He's got the whole world in his hands. He's got the whole world in his hands. He's got the whole world in his hands.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Rev. Sharon Watkins delivered the sermon, the first woman to do so during an inaugural service. She called on the president and vice president to remain true to their principles as they confront the challenges facing the country.

REV. SHARON WATKINS: There is a story attributed to Cherokee wisdom. One evening, a grandfather was teaching his young grandson about the internal battle that each person faces. "There are two wolves struggling inside of us," the old man said. "One wolf is vengefulness, anger, resentment, self-pity, fear. The other wolf is compassion, faithfulness, hope, truth, and love."

The grandson sat, thinking, then asked, "Which wolf wins, Grandfather?" His grandfather replied, "The one you feed."

There are crises banging on the door right now, pawing at us, trying to draw us off our ethical center, crises that tempt us to feed the wolf of vengefulness and fear.

We need you, Mr. President, to hold your ground. We need you, leaders of this nation, to stay centered on the values that have guided us in the past, values that have empowered to move through the perils of earlier times and can guide us now into a future of renewed promise.

We need you to feed the good wolf within you, to listen to the better angels of your nature, and, by your example, encourage us to do the same.

Obama focuses on transparency

KWAME HOLMAN: Upon returning to the White House, the president quickly got down to the business of governing, issuing an executive order on ethics for White House employees.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: As of today, lobbyists will be subject to stricter limits than under any -- under any other administration in history. If you are a lobbyist entering my administration, you will not be able to work on matters you lobbied on or in the agencies you lobbied during the previous two years.

When you leave government, you will not be able to lobby my administration for as long as I am president. And there will be a ban on gifts by lobbyists to anyone serving in the administration, as well.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president also put forward new rules regarding the Freedom of Information Act, making it harder to keep government activities secret.

BARACK OBAMA: The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable. And the way to make government accountable is to make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they're being made, and whether their interests are being well served.

The directives I am giving my administration today on how to interpret the Freedom of Information Act will do just that.

For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city. The old rules said that, if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over.

Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known.

To be sure, issues like personal privacy and national security must be treated with the care they demand. But the mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does mean you should always use it.

Economy tops agenda

KWAME HOLMAN: And Mr. Obama participated in the swearing in of the White House senior staff, with Vice President Biden administering the oath.

JOSEPH BIDEN, Vice President of the United States: I -- repeat your name, please -- do solemnly swear or affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic and I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.

KWAME HOLMAN: He told his staff that, much like the American people, they, too, would have to make sacrifices.

BARACK OBAMA: During this period of economic emergency, families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington. And that's why I am instituting a pay freeze on the salaries of my senior White House staff.

Some of the people in this room will be affected by the pay freeze, and I want you to know that I appreciate your willingness to agree to it, recognizing that it's what's required of you at this moment. It's a mark of your commitment to public service.

KWAME HOLMAN: By mid-afternoon, the president and first lady were greeting some 200 visitors in the Blue Room of their new home, as part of an open house.

After that, Mr. Obama held a closed-door meeting with his economic team to focus on the struggling economy and his multibillion-dollar plan to fix it.

Later, President Obama called a meeting in the White House Situation Room to discuss plans for ending the war in Iraq, a principal promise of his campaign.

And Mr. Obama's aides circulated a draft of an executive order which, when signed, would close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay within one year. Detainee trials there have been suspended for 120 days, pending a review of the military tribunals system by the White House.