Obama To Hold Economy Press Conference

Barack Obama holds his first press conference as president-elect Friday. He's meeting with his economic advisers in Chicago beforehand to discuss plans to deal with the downturn. We look at what he's likely to see and how his advisory team is shaping up.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, unemployment numbers are out today. Not only are the numbers bad, they may actually undercount the true unemployment situation.

CHADWICK: Unemployment and other economic news, the topic of President-elect Barack Obama's first news conference. That's coming up a little later today in Chicago. He'll meet with reporters after meeting with his top economic advisers. Here with more is NPR's David Schaper. He's in Chicago. David, this seems like it's going to be a pretty important press conference for Senator Obama.

DAVID SCHAPER: Well, yeah. I think it is. I think it's his very first one and it's very important for a number of reasons. He has to first and foremost look presidential. We've been seeing him try to do this a little bit more and more on the campaign trail in recent weeks and months. But you know, there's only so much you can do when you're out on the campaign trail, and he has to show that he has a firm grasp of some of these issues. You know, the economy, obviously, first and foremost among them, because his campaign themes have all been about hope and change, and the number-one overriding issue to voters was the economy.

So, he has to go beyond those slogans and show that he's in the process of taking some action, even though he and his economic advisers really don't have the power to do much yet. I suspect there will be a lot of questions about possible cabinet choices, the tenor and tone he is trying to set with those choices. He'll be grilled on foreign affairs, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I'm sure. So, he needs to show the American people that he's well-versed in all of these issues and instill confidence that they made the right choice on Tuesday.

CHADWICK: But this is his first public moment since that really stirring speech in Grant Park on Tuesday night. Do you have any idea from his people about what it is he wants to say? Does he have a message he wants to get out here?

SCHAPER: I think, number one, the message is that he wants to show that he is on top of the economy. And there's economic news today that is not good news. The unemployment rate jumping from 6.1 percent in September to 6.5 percent in October. I think you're going to hear a theme about the need to put the middle class at the center of the economic policy that comes out of an Obama administration. Lawrence Summers, Treasury secretary under President Clinton, is one the 17 economic advisers who's meeting with President-elect Obama today. And he said so this morning that he wants to put the middle class at the center of the economic-policy approach that comes out of this administration. So, I would expect Mr. Obama to elaborate on that and echo those points. I don't think we're going to get any big news on any major cabinet appointments. No personal news is expected today, but his cabinet is starting to take a little bit of shape. It looks much like what we saw in the Clinton White House, too.

CHADWICK: Let me ask you about this meeting with the economic advisers. Warren Buffet there, I think, by maybe video phone or something and 16 other members of this Transition Economic Advisory Board. What went on there? This was a closed-door meeting. Do we have any idea exactly what people are talking about?

SCHAPER: I think that they're all kind of weighing in on some of the issues that are most pressing on them. These are all people who I know that the Obama campaign relied on for advice at times. Now, they have to shape a policy, and I think that they're lending their views of where the direct administration should go and, first and foremost, how to pick up the $700 billion financial-rescue package from the Bush administration and carry it on in the Treasury Department moving forward.

I'm sure there will be names bandied about (ph) about who should direct this effort as Treasury secretary, but I don't know that we'll have any firm answers on the full shape of that direction, where they go with the policy and ultimately who will lead the Treasury Department under President Obama.

CHADWICK: NPR's David Schaper with us from Chicago, where later today President-elect Barack Obama will hold his first press conference as president-elect. David, thank you.

SCHAPER: Thank you.

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Can Obama Make Good On Promises About Wars?

President-elect Barack Obama will soon inherit twin national security crises: two stubborn wars.

Whomever Obama taps to run the Pentagon will be burdened with finding a way out of Iraq and crafting a way to ease the fighting in Afghanistan. There's much speculation on who will lead the Pentagon next year and carry out those policies.

Iraq

Obama forged his campaign around his opposition to the Iraq war and turning over security to Iraqi forces.

"Sen. Obama has been emphasizing consistently that the challenge for us is to incentivize the Iraqis to take on more responsibility," Richard Danzig, one of Obama's top advisers, recently told NPR.

That incentive is a sort of tough love, says the Obama camp.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), who also has been advising Obama, has also talked of drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq.

"Barack Obama will work with our military commanders to begin the phased withdrawal of our troops out of Iraq in the first 16 months," Reed told delegates at the Democratic National Convention in August.

Both Danzig and Reed are now among the top contenders to run the Pentagon under President Obama.

But can the incoming administration remove U.S. troops from Iraq that quickly?

Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that although violence is down in Iraq, Obama may find it hard to withdraw American troops in large numbers given that the security situation is still so uncertain.

"And no one can predict at this point in time exactly what's going to happen with internal civil conflict in Iraq or that al-Qaida will be fully defeated or reduced to such a low level of operations that Iraq can operate on its own," says Cordesman.

He says Obama can withdraw American forces but maybe not as many as he promised his supporters.

Obama could find himself in political peril by removing too many U.S. troops, says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

"Should he make the mistake of withdrawing so fast that he creates a worse security situation environment, you can bet that will be Exhibit A in future Republican criticism of him starting with the midterm elections in 2010," O'Hanlon says.

Afghanistan

But the real test for Obama may not be in Iraq, but on that other battlefield, says O'Hanlon.

"I think Obama's biggest challenge so far is to try to turn around the failing effort in Afghanistan," he says.

While on the campaign trail, Obama had said this failure centered on President Bush not having sent enough troops to Afghanistan. And at campaign rallies, he constantly pledged to stop the war in Iraq and turn to the other.

"We will bring this war to an end. We will focus our attention on Afghanistan," Obama said.

O'Hanlon says Obama's campaign focused mostly on sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Occasionally, Obama raised the problem of fighters coming across the border from Pakistan.

"But that's at best only two of five key parts of this problem," O'Hanlon says.

He points to three other key factors rarely discussed by Obama or his advisers: building up Afghan forces, increasing economic development for the Afghan government and negotiating with some of the Taliban insurgents.

To help him tackle Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama will need experienced hands — like Danzig and Reed — at the Pentagon. Danzig served as Navy secretary under President Clinton and is a respected voice on national security. Reed is a West Point graduate and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Obama may reach out to Republicans on national security in an effort to tap into experience and to find political cover. Among them: Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana, a longtime member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Obama advisers say one option is to keep Gates at the Pentagon for a few months or up to a year.

But Gates has brushed aside the idea of staying on in an Obama administration.

"Let me just say, I'm getting a lot of career advice and counseling than I might have anticipated," Gates said. "And I think I'll leave it at that."

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