January 22, 2009 at 10:52 am

Down to business

Obama's first day: Gitmo, Gaza, ethics

President Barack Obama works in the Oval Office on Wednesday in his shirt sleeves, a departure from former President George W. Bush, who had a rule that suit coats be worn in the office. (Pete Souza / Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama hit the ground running Wednesday on his first full day as president, backing up campaign pledges to make his administration open and ethical, and diving into the arduous challenges of war abroad and economic peril at home.

"What an opportunity we have to change this country," said Obama, who started the morning alone in the Oval Office at 8:35 a.m., after dancing past midnight at his inaugural balls.

Obama read a personal note left behind by his predecessor, George W. Bush: The envelope was marked, "To: #44, From: #43." The contents weren't disclosed, but it is customary for a president to leave a note for his successor.

Then it was time to get down to business, culminating in retaking the oath of office Wednesday night after Supreme Court Justice John Roberts stumbled in leading Obama Tuesday.

Earlier, a shirt-sleeved Obama sent a series of signals about what kind of presidency his will be:

  • He froze the salaries of about 100 senior staffers earning more than $100,000.

    "During this period of economic emergency, families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington," Obama told senior staff. He also signed a ban on gifts by lobbyists to anyone serving in his administration and barred the staffers from becoming lobbyists for two years after leaving his administration.

  • According to White House reports, he is preparing to sign an executive order today to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center within a year and halt military trials of terror suspects held there.

    An estimated 245 men are being held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba. Most have been detained for years without being charged with a crime. The administration has received permission to suspend the trials at Guantanamo for 120 days pending a review of the military tribunals.

  • Weighing in for the first time on the Gaza crisis, Obama vowed to back a fragile cease-fire. He telephoned President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, King Abdullah of Jordan and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. And he prepared to give George Mitchell, the former Senate Democratic leader, a top diplomatic post for the region.

    "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 the aftermath of the Gaza conflict, he emphasized his determination to work to help consolidate the cease-fire by establishing an effective anti-smuggling regime to prevent Hamas from re-arming, and facilitating in partnership with the Palestinian Authority a major reconstruction effort for Palestinians in Gaza."

  • Obama summoned Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Gen. James Jones, his national ecurity adviser; Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the Situation Room to talk about Iraq. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the Multi-National-Force-Iraq, joined through a video conference.

    As a candidate, Obama vowed to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq within 16 months and beef up the commitment in Afghanistan.

  • He presided over a meeting of top economic advisers as the House Appropriations Committee moved toward approval of $358 billion in spending, part of the economic stimulus package making its way to his desk.

  • Obama issued an executive order limiting the ability of former presidents to block the release of sensitive records of their time in the White House. That reverses a Bush directive. Obama said former presidents may ask to have certain documents kept private, but they no longer may compel the National Archives to do so.

    Coinciding with the blizzard of activity at the White House, which included a prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral, the Senate confirmed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Counting Clinton, seven Cabinet members have been confirmed, as have the two top officials at the Office of Management and Budget.

    But in a signal of bumpy moments ahead for the president with the Congress, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey questioned whether the $825 billion stimulus proposal requested by Obama was enough.

    Republican leaders -- including Michigan's Dave Camp of Midland, who is the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee -- asked to meet with the president to complain that it is too expensive.

    Stephen Hess, a presidential expert at the Brookings Institution, said Obama's first full day was unusually brisk for a new president.

    "Typically, the first day of presidents is more like the first day of school -- a day of settling in," Hess said.

    "It's clear that he wishes to send the message that this is going to be a fast-moving, exciting and important administration. It's an important message for a nation that is feeling pretty shaky."

    Aside from the brisk workload, there were light moments, too, as Obama adjusted to his new role. When aides rose as Obama walked into a room, the new president confided, "I'm still getting used to that whole thing."

    The Associated Press contributed to this report. You can reach Deb Price at dprice@detnews.com">dprice@detnews.com or (202) 662-8736.

  • President Barack Obama retakes the oath of office Wednesday from Chief ... (Pete Souza / Getty Images)