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Obama’s Day Two Brings Policy Changes, New Staff

January 22, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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President Barack Obama's second full day in office brought more policy decisions and staffing moves, including the naming of two diplomatic envoys for the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kwame Holman reports.

JIM LEHRER: This was working day number two for President Obama, and most of his attention was devoted to matters of state and defense. NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: On the playground, it’s called a do-over. The White House did its version last night, arranging to re-administer the presidential oath after Chief Justice John Roberts misstated the words of the oath at Tuesday’s inauguration.

The chief justice was at the White House to swear in President Obama again last evening, using the exact words specified in the Constitution.

JOHN ROBERTS, Chief Justice, United States Supreme Court: So help you God?

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: So help me God.

JOHN ROBERTS: Congratulations, again.

BARACK OBAMA: Thank you, sir.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House Press Secretary: You know lawyers. They…

KWAME HOLMAN: At his first news conference as presidential press secretary, Robert Gibbs said the oath was taken again on the advice of the White House counsel’s office.

ROBERT GIBBS: They did not believe that there was a problem. But out of an abundance of caution, to ensure that somebody didn’t think there might ever be, that it was simply done again.

KWAME HOLMAN: This morning, President Obama met with economic advisers to discuss the bad economy and his near-trillion-dollar stimulus proposal now being worked on by Congress. His spokesman said the economic meeting will be a daily occurrence, modeled on the president’s intelligence briefing.

Gibbs also revealed the president will be able to continue to e-mail on his favored BlackBerry and still meet security requirements and comply with the Presidential Records Act.

ROBERT GIBBS: The president has a BlackBerry through a compromise that allows him to stay in touch with senior staff and a small group of personal friends in a way that use will be limited and that the security is enhanced to ensure his ability to communicate, but to do so effectively, and to do so in a way that is protected.

Clinton starts at State Department

KWAME HOLMAN: And Mr. Obama moved closer to getting help on the economy from his choice for treasury secretary. Timothy Geithner's nomination was favorably sent on to the full Senate by a Finance Committee vote of 18-5, despite unhappiness by Republicans about Geithner's explanations of why he initially failed to pay a portion of his income tax.

Meanwhile, the staff of the State Department gave a rousing welcome to Hillary Clinton, confirmed as secretary last night.

WILLIAM BURNS, Undersecretary of State: It is truly a great honor to introduce the 67th secretary of state of the United States of America, Hillary Clinton.

KWAME HOLMAN: Clinton vowed U.S. use of smart power in its interactions with the world.

HILLARY CLINTON, Secretary of State: There are three legs to the stool of American foreign policy: defense, diplomacy and development. And we are responsible for two of the three legs, and we will make clear... as we go forward, that diplomacy and development are essential tools in achieving the long-term objectives of the United States. And I will do all that I can, working with you, to make it abundantly clear that robust diplomacy and effective development are the best long-term tools for securing America's future.

KWAME HOLMAN: That same sentiment was echoed on Capitol Hill this morning. Admiral Dennis Blair, nominated to be director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee the new administration will end Bush-era practices, such as warrantless wiretapping and enhanced interrogation, which he called torture.

Blair also talked about President Obama's decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

ADM. DENNIS BLAIR (Ret.), Director of National Intelligence-designate: Torture is not moral, it's not legal, it's not effective. The U.S. government will have a clear and consistent standard for treatment of detainees. The Guantanamo detention center will be closed. It's become a damaging symbol.

Steps to close Guantanamo

KWAME HOLMAN: A short time later, President Obama signed several security-related executive orders, including one affecting detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: By the authority vested in me as president -- as president by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, in order to effect the appropriate disposition of individuals currently detained by the Department of Defense at Guantanamo and promptly to close the detention facility at Guantanamo, consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice, I hereby order.

And we then provide the process whereby Guantanamo will be closed no later than one year from now.

KWAME HOLMAN: Two other presidential orders establish a review process for Guantanamo detainees and mandate detainees' treatment meet terms set by the Geneva Conventions.

That order also stipulates all U.S. personnel conducting interrogations, including CIA operatives, must adhere to the standards set forth by the U.S. Army Field Manual.

Notably, the order also prohibits reliance on any of the legal opinions devised by the Bush administration to justify harsh interrogation practices.

BARACK OBAMA: We believe that the Army Field Manual reflects the best judgment of our military, that we can abide by a rule that says we don't torture, but that we can still effectively obtain the intelligence that we need.

This is me following through on not just a commitment I made during the campaign, but I think an understanding that dates back to our founding fathers, that we are willing to observe core standards of conduct, not just when it's easy, but also when it's hard.

KWAME HOLMAN: In an unusual move, Mr. Obama invited cameras inside the Oval Office for the signing, which included Vice President Biden and a group of former high-ranking military officers who long advocated closing Guantanamo Bay and a return to what Mr. Obama called "core constitutional values."

BARACK OBAMA: And all of the individuals who are standing behind me, as well as, I think, the American people, understand that we are not, as I said in the inauguration, going to continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals.

We think that it is precisely our ideals that give us the strength and the moral high ground to be able to effectively deal with the unthinking violence that you see emanating from terrorist organizations around the world. We intend to win this fight. We're going to win it on our terms.

Obama visits State Department

KWAME HOLMAN: At the Pentagon, Robert Gates, who was asked by Mr. Obama to remain as defense secretary, said implementing the closure would be a challenge, but that officials already were considering where detainees could be moved.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: We have identified a number of possible prisons here in the United States. I've heard from members of Congress where all of those prisons are located. Their enthusiasm is limited.

I think one of the things that has come with the new president, as we have heard publicly from some of the European countries, is that they are willing to consider taking these, and we've not heard from those people before. So we may have some opportunities in terms of sending some of these detainees to other countries that did not exist before January 20th.

JOURNALIST: Mr. Secretary, was the intelligence garnered from detainees at Gitmo worth the international condemnation?

ROBERT GATES: That's a net assessment that I don't think I'm in a position to make.

HILLARY CLINTON: We are delighted to be joined this afternoon by President Obama and Vice President Biden.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, the president and vice president joined Secretary Clinton at the State Department.

HILLARY CLINTON: It is an indication of the president's commitment to a foreign policy that protects our national security and advances our interests and is in keeping with our values.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president drew a resounding round of applause from the audience, made up largely of State Department staff, when he spoke of the executive orders he signed.

BARACK OBAMA: I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture.

Mitchell, Holbrooke are envoys

KWAME HOLMAN: Mr. Obama's efforts to reshape American foreign policy began with the naming of two diplomatic envoys, for the Middle East and for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell will be charged with helping bring a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Mitchell headed the peace negotiations that led to the 1998 Good Friday Accord in Northern Ireland.

GEORGE MITCHELL, Middle East Diplomatic Envoy: The situation in the Middle East is volatile, complex and dangerous. But the president and the secretary of state have made it clear that danger and difficulty cannot cause the United States to turn away.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president reiterated that he supported Israel's right to defend itself against Hamas militants and promised to be engaged actively in the two-state peace process.

BARACK OBAMA: No one doubts the difficulty of the road ahead, and George outlined some of those difficulties. The tragic violence in Gaza and southern Israel offers a sobering reminder of the challenges at hand and the setbacks that will inevitably come.

It must also instill in us, though, a sense of urgency, as history shows us that strong and sustained American engagement can bridge divides and build the capacity that supports progress.

Another urgent threat to global security is the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism.

KWAME HOLMAN: Heading that effort will be former United Nations Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. The career diplomat noted the differences between the two countries.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, Pakistan and Afghanistan Diplomatic Envoy: In putting Afghanistan and Pakistan together under one envoy, we should underscore that we fully respect the fact that Pakistan has its own history, its own traditions, and it is far more than the turbulent, dangerous tribal areas on its western border.

KWAME HOLMAN: Before leaving the State Department, President Obama made clear he'd be engaged actively in foreign affairs.

BARACK OBAMA: Let there be no doubt about America's commitment to lead. We can no longer afford drift, and we can no longer afford delay, nor can we cede ground to those who seek destruction. A new era of American leadership is at hand, and the hard work has just begun. You are going to be at the front lines of engaging in that important work.

KWAME HOLMAN: The envoy's missions are expected to begin right away.