Revelry Over, Obama Turns To Presidential Priorities After attending a prayer service in Washington, President Obama began Wednesday to tackle urgent issues that will define his first 100 days in office: the reeling economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
NPR logo Revelry Over, Obama Turns To Presidential Priorities

Revelry Over, Obama Turns To Presidential Priorities

President Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office on Wednesday, the first full day of his administration, in this handout photo from the White House. Pete Souza/Getty Images hide caption

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Pete Souza/Getty Images

President Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office on Wednesday, the first full day of his administration, in this handout photo from the White House.

Pete Souza/Getty Images

Change Of Command

Full coverage of Tuesday's ceremony, parade and other festivities:

On his first full day as president, Barack Obama arrived in the Oval Office at 8:35 a.m. Wednesday and managed to spend 10 minutes alone with a letter that was left in his desk, the White House announced.

In that now-rare solitary moment, Obama read a note left to him by the office's most recent occupant. "To: #44," the envelope was marked,"From: #43."

The contents remain private, but the note no doubt included wishes of good luck as Obama shook off the revelry of Tuesday's inauguration and began to tackle the issues most likely to define his first hundred days: the reeling economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While out-of-towners struggled to hail taxis for the airport and workers broke down party tents and crowd-control fences, the new president and first lady Michelle Obama attended the final official inaugural event Wednesday: a prayer service at the National Cathedral. The president later had meetings scheduled with his economic and military advisers, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Obama placed phone calls Wednesday to the heads of state in Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority "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 spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

The Obamas also planned to host a White House open house.

During a televised meeting with his senior staff, Obama signed his first executive orders that institute new ethics rules, including a ban on gifts to staff and add restrictions on the revolving door between the White House and lobbying shops.

Obama also announced he would freeze the pay of about 100 senior staffers who now earn more than $100,000, and he pledged to comply with not only the letter but the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act, which allows access to public records. He characterized the FOI Act as one of the most powerful instruments to hold government accountable.

"Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency," Obama told staff who had gathered in a briefing room in the Old Executive Office Building. He said that the new rules represent a "major break with business as usual."

"However long we are keepers of the public trust, we should never forget we are public servants," Obama said, cautioning staffers that they should not use their positions to seek favor for themselves, friends or corporate interests. His orders will prevent staffers who were lobbyists from working on matters or with agencies related to that lobbying, and he said that any staffer who leaves would not be allowed to lobby the Obama administration.

The president already has ordered a 120-day stop to pending war crimes trials at the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to allow him time to review how terror suspects should be handled. He is said to be considering reversing by Thursday some of former President Bush's executive orders.

And on Capitol Hill, the man Obama picked to help lead the nation out of its financial morass faced tough questions from some Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee about his failure to pay more than $34,000 in Social Security and Medicare taxes when he served as a top official at the International Monetary Fund from 2001 to 2003.

Treasury Secretary-designee Timothy Geithner, now president of the New York Federal Reserve, told senators considering his nomination that he "should have been more careful." But he forcefully made his case for rapid action on a stimulus bill, or face risk of further economic damage.

Meanwhile, the House is planning to vote on setting conditions on the president's use of the just-released final $350 billion of the financial industry bailout money, and a Senate committee resumed its work on his economic stimulus package.

Obama is expected to preside over a swearing-in ceremony for seven Cabinet members confirmed Tuesday by the Senate. His pick for secretary of state, his former rival Sen. Hillary Clinton, is expected to get Senate confirmation later Wednesday.

A full plate, no doubt, with other troubling issues lurking, including the tenuous situation in Gaza.

In the opening prayer at Wednesday's national prayer service, the Rev. Otis Moss, senior pastor emeritus at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland, invoked the quick passage of time and the need for action.

"Keep us aware of the fact that this is a fleeting moment," he said. "Help us to use it in such a way that we leave what we touch better than we found it."

Though he has four years stretching before him, Obama has no time to waste.