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President plunges in at the deep end

ON his first day in office United States President Barack Obama plunged into the task of governing a nation he vows to change, calling together its economic and military leaders to address America's daunting challenges.

A day after claiming his place in history as the first black US president, he was faced with pulling the US economy out of its nosedive even as he moved on his promise to withdraw American forces from Iraq while sending still more soldiers to America's other war in Afghanistan.

In addition to meeting with his advisers, Obama welcomed public visitors into the White House, as Congress scrutinized his economic revival plan and took up the nominations of Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state and Timothy Geithner as treasury secretary.

A new poll underscored the sense of anticipation that accompanied Obama into office.

The Associated Press-Knowledge Networks survey found that by a 3-1 margin, people feel more optimistic about the country's future now that Obama has been inaugurated, including 30 percent of Republicans.

"Tonight, we celebrate. Tomorrow, the work begins ... Together, I am confident we will write the next great chapter in America's story," Obama declared on Tuesday night at the Commander-in-Chief Ball, one of 10 official inaugural celebrations that kept him and first lady Michelle Obama up into the early morning hours.

Obama's Democratic Party now controls both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time since 1994, providing a chance for the new administration to succeed if he can work in concert effectively with law makers.

The capstone to four days of inaugural festivities took place at the Washington National Cathedral yesterday morning, with a national prayer service that is a tradition dating to the time of George Washington, the country's first president. Obama and his wife were to welcome hundreds of members of the public to a White House open house, part of his pledge to make government and those who govern more accessible for the governed.

A meeting with his economic team was planned to assess his approach and plot the way forward. Taking over the White House with 11 million Americans out of work and trillions of dollars in stock market savings lost, Obama said that turning around the limping economy is his first and greatest priority.

Congress already has given him a second installment of financial-industry bailout money, worth US$350 billion, and is fast-tracking a massive economic stimulus bill of US$825 billion or more.

"Fortunately we've seen Congress immediately start working on the economic recovery package, getting that passed and putting people back to work," he said in an ABC News television interview. "That's going to be the thing we'll be most focused on."

The breakdown of confidence in the country's banks, occurring on the same day as his inauguration, gave the matter fresh urgency. Financial stocks, many of them falling by double digit percentages, led a huge drop on Wall Street on Tuesday that left the major indexes down more than 4 percent.

The market's faith in the outgoing Bush administration's US$700 billion bailout effort was already waning. Many experts believe Obama's administration will have little choice but to pump more money into the banking sector or create an entity to buy banks' soured assets such as subprime mortgages so they will start lending again.

Addressing the war in Iraq that he has promised to end was featuring prominently in Obama's first day as well.

According to officials, Obama will conduct a video teleconference late in the afternoon with members of the National Security Council as well as the US military commanders in the two war zones.

Obama has said he wants US combat troops out of Iraq in 16 months, as long as doing so would not endanger either the Americans left behind for training and terrorism-fighting or the security gains in Iraq. He has said he would use that drawdown to bolster the US presence in Afghanistan, where a resurgent Taliban has been gaining ground.

Getting the Obama administration fully staffed also was proceeding.

Within hours of Obama's swearing in, the Senate approved six members of his Cabinet.


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