- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2009

President Obama met with his top economic and military advisers, waded into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and issued executive orders establishing ethical standards for his administration on a busy first full day on the job Wednesday.

The first official acts of his presidency were to freeze the pay of White House officials making more than $100,000, impose a gift ban on political appointees and place new restrictions on lobbyists’ access to government jobs.

“Let me say it as clearly as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency,” he said, declaring “a new era of openness.”

The president was to issue an executive order Thursday that would close the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba in about one year, according to White House aides and documents obtained by The Washington Times.

Mr. Obama took immediate action Wednesday to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling four of the foreign leaders at the heart of the decadeslong struggle that has been inflamed by the recent brutal fighting in Gaza.

Prior to a morning worship service at the Washington National Cathedral, Mr. Obama called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“He used this opportunity on his first day in office to communicate his commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term, and to express his hope for their continued cooperation and leadership,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in an e-mailed statement.

Mr. Obama’s first day at the White House was a typical moving day - nobody seemed to know where anything or anyone was, and even the boss was unsure of the procedures and protocols at his one public event.

Despite the logistical confusion, the president leapt headlong into two of the biggest challenges he faces - the faltering economy and the task of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. In back-to-back afternoon meetings behind closed doors, Mr. Obama received briefings from his economic and military advisers.

His ethics measures were meant to convey that the Obama administration will serve the public and no other interests and that the White House will lead by example in making tough economic choices.

The restrictions on lobbyists fulfilled a campaign promise, and ethics groups said they set the right tone for the new administration.

Mr. Obama thanked the more than 100 aides - including Mr. Gibbs and senior adviser David Axelrod - who accepted the pay freeze.

“You inspire great confidence in me, and the more the American people get to know you, the more you will inspire great confidence in the American people,” he said.

His first executive order demanded that every appointee in every executive agency pledge in writing to refuse gifts from lobbyists and consider only competence when hiring personnel. The order requires an annual report on compliance.

Another order seeks to close the so-called “revolving door” between K Street and government offices that led to major ethics scandals on Capitol Hill.

Former lobbyists who join the executive branch are banned from participating in government matters or agencies “directly and substantially related” to their lobbying work, and they cannot accept jobs with agencies they had lobbied within the previous two years.

Employees must agree that if they leave government to become lobbyists, they will be subject to the same restrictions for two years. They also must pledge not to lobby any executive officials for the remainder of the Obama administration.

“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,” Mr. Obama said.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the changes indicate “a new era in government accountability.”

But Dave Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said the restrictions on lobbying showed “seriously flawed logic” that are “bound to keep out the people that actually know anything about Washington.”

“This executive order will do more harm than good and, quite frankly, it hurts the country by keeping experts out of the system,” Mr. Wenhold said.

Mr. Obama’s meeting on Iraq took place in the White House Situation Room, a West Wing basement suite of conference rooms with 24-hour, seven-day-a-week staff and secure video conferencing that can connect the president with foreign heads of state and his own government and military officials around the world.

The meeting included Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, National Security Adviser James Jones, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael G. Mullen, Central Command chief Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.

Hillary Rodham Clinton was confirmed by the Senate as secretary of state while the meeting was in progress and raced to the White House in time to attend part of the meeting, said spokesman Philippe Reines.

Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, joined the meeting by video conference.

“The meeting was productive and I very much appreciated receiving assessments from these experienced and dedicated individuals,” Mr. Obama said afterward. “During the discussion, I asked the military leadership to engage in additional planning necessary to execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq.

“In the coming days and weeks, I will also visit the Department of Defense to consult with the Joint Chiefs on these issues, and we will undertake a full review of the situation in Afghanistan in order to develop a comprehensive policy for the entire region,” he said.

Mr. Obama was briefed on the economy by National Economic Director Lawrence H. Summers, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes and White House coordinator of energy and climate policy Carol M. Browner.

The day, however, was not without hiccups.

After signing the executive orders in a midsize amphitheater in front of White House staff, Mr. Obama was uncertain what to do next from the podium. He called on Mr. Biden to swear in the White House senior staff, catching the former senator off guard.

“Am I doing this again?” said Mr. Biden, who had already sworn in several recently confirmed Cabinet members.

The president indicated that Mr. Biden would be swearing in senior staff this time, prompting Mr. Biden, who also was looking for a text of the oath, to make a verbal gaffe that left the president standing grim-faced.

“My memory is not as good as Justice Roberts, Chief Justice Roberts,” Mr. Biden said, in a dig at U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who flubbed the oath of office while swearing in Mr. Obama at the Capitol on Tuesday.

The new president was not amused by Mr. Biden’s crack. As some in the audience drew in breath or laughed, Mr. Obama stood silently next to Mr. Biden and gave a small shake of his head.

On Thursday, Mr. Obama is scheduled to meet with Mrs. Clinton at the State Department. The two are supposed to speak to the foreign service officers afterward.

Outside the White House, the mood was celebratory as tourists and participants in the previous day’s inaugural ceremony walked in front of the president’s new home, at times cheering or singing. In convenience stores, customers joined long lines to buy copies of the day’s historic newspaper editions.

Mr. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama welcomed roughly 400 guests to the White House for an “open house,” part of their ongoing attempt to make the White House and the presidency more accessible to everyday Americans.

The open house guests obtained their invitations by signing up on the inaugural committee Web site, in response to an e-mail to supporters.

Tracie Jones, from Bessemer, Ala., traveled to the nation’s capital Monday, arriving around midnight to watch the inauguration the next day.

“We just prayed, and thank the Lord,” Miss Jones said while shaking Mr. Obama’s hand. “This is even better than we expected.”

After exiting the Blue Room, the State Floor room in the center of the White House where Mr. and Mrs. Obama greeted guests, Miss Jones exclaimed, “Praise God, thank you Jesus.

“We prayed to get in here. It’s all the Lord. Can you put that down?”

cStephen Dinan contributed to this report.


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