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Obama makes an impressive debut

Members of the perss listen as Barack Obama gives his first news conference since winning the presidency, 7 November 2008
The event provided clues as to how Mr Obama will handle the press

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Chicago

Barack Obama faced questions from the press in Chicago, the same city where, on election night, he saluted the American people's response to one of the great challenges of their history.

America is still basking in the warm afterglow of the election which brought to power its first black president - a result which changed the way the world views America and, perhaps, changed the way Americans look at themselves.

But there is an undercurrent of anxiety here too - the bad news stories came thick and fast on the day we waited for Mr Obama under the glittering chandeliers of a downtown hotel ballroom over the road from the park where he embraced his destiny.


The event was interesting for the clues it gave us about how Mr Obama will manage his relationship with the press

Unemployment rose to its highest level for 14 years; the crumbling powerhouses of Ford and General Motors produced more terrible figures; and consumer sales, in the words of one analyst, fell off a cliff.

The president-elect's first news conference since his powerful victory speech contained no major new message on the economy - indeed you got the impression that the event had been called not because Mr Obama had anything new to say, but because there was such hunger to hear him say something.

Mr Obama was ringed by his 17-strong Transition Economic Advisory Team, and he underlined the core messages of his campaign - about the depth of the economic crisis, the pain facing families losing jobs and homes, and his determination to put together a stimulus package to help.

But there were no big new answers and difficult questions - about the quality of the intelligence to which he now has access, and how he will deal with disagreements with President George W Bush during the transition period - were politely but firmly batted away.

In America, though, his careful answers to questions which were distinctly lacking in challenge will be swallowed up avidly. The United States is hungry for news about its new leader.

Double-take

He looked, I thought from my position just a few feet from the podium, as though the weariness of the campaign was showing in his face and voice.

But there was no doubt that he was in good form.

Barack Obama's news conference in full

When he walked in, the assembled journalists stood up, as they are expected to for the president - although no-one seemed quite sure whether it is also required for presidents-elect.

He did a slight double-take when he saw that and said simply: "Wow, thanks guys." Mr Obama knows how to charm a room and how to radiate a little humour and humility.

He did it again on his way out of the room after he had declared proceedings to be at an end, answering a journalist who shouted "One question from France?" by smiling and calling: "Bonjour!"

In between, the answers on the economy were fairly familiar - he will not be deterred from his priorities of clean energy, health, education and tax cuts by the state of the public finances, which are catastrophic.

The event was more interesting for the clues it gave us about how Mr Obama will manage his relationship with the press, rather than how he will manage the country.

He knew by name the Chicago Sun-Times reporter who was wearing a sling because she cracked her arm in the stampede to hear the Obama victory speech on Tuesday, and he was ready for the inevitable questions about what is surely to become the most famous dog in America.

This was chiefly about Americans being offered another chance to get to know their new president

This is the pet he has promised to buy his daughters Sasha and Malia when they live in the White House. He said it was one of the biggest issues on his website, and many Americans are obsessed with what breed he will choose.

That in itself is a reminder of how extraordinary and powerful an idea it is that the the first family to which America now looks up is African-American.

Here too, Mr Obama was the soul of self-deprecation - Malia it seems is allergic, so the search is on for a hypoallergenic hound, although the politically correct preference would be for a shelter dog - "a mutt like me" as the new president-elect put it, making light of his mixed racial heritage which is the talk of the world.

There was substance on the economy, but nothing really new - this was chiefly about Americans being offered another chance to get to know their new president.

It will be interesting to see how the tone holds up and the style evolves as that relationship develops.



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