At first news conference, Obama promises stimulus push

CHICAGO -- In his first news conference as president-elect, Barack Obama pledged Friday to quickly seek an economic stimulus plan and made it clear he'd like to see Congress act on it even before he takes office.

"If it does not get done in the lame duck session, it will be the first thing I will get done as president of the United States," he told reporters. A "lame duck" session is a meeting of Congress that takes place after an election, but before the new Congress is sworn in.

Obama focused on economic issues in the session, which lasted less than 20 minutes. But he also touched on some foreign policy and personnel matters, including what he joked was a "major issue," the selection of the future First Dog.

The president-elect also pledged to extend unemployment benefits, provide relief to struggling small businesses and — on a day when both Ford and General Motors announced fresh losses — signaled his intention to move decisively to preserve the domestic auto industry.

Obama called the industry "the backbone of American manufacturing and a critical part of our attempt to reduce our dependence on foreign oil." During his presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly said he wants the next generation of alternative vehicles developed and built in the U.S., and "not in South Korea or Japan."

Although he emphasized that President Bush remains the nation's chief executive until Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, Obama indicated that his transition team will be examining the management of the $700 billion financial bailout for Wall Street with a critical eye. His advisors "will review the implementation of this administration's financial program to ensure that our government's efforts are achieving their central goal of stabilizing financial markets, while protecting taxpayers, helping homeowners and not unduly rewarding the management of financial firms that are receiving government assistance," Obama said

In another signal he intends to extend a helping hand to Detroit, Obama singled out the presence of Michigan Gov. Jennifer Grantholm among the team of economic advisers standing behind him at the press conference.

The news conference came on a day filled with reports of economic bad news. In addition to the Ford and GM losses, the Labor Department announced the jobless rate had surged to 6.5%, the highest in more than 14 years. Another 240,000 jobs were lost in October, well above the 200,000 losses expected by Wall Street economists.

Earlier Friday, Obama and Biden met with the diverse group of economists, academics and business leaders who advised Obama during his campaign. They include William Donaldson, a Republican who headed the Securities and Exchange Commission during President Bush's first term, and Robert Reich, Labor secretary for President Clinton.

Also in the group were CEOs Richard Parsons of Time Warner and Eric Schmidt of Google, and Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard. Summers, who was Treasury secretary under Clinton, is a candidate to return to that job in the Obama administration.

"We're not starting from nowhere," Summers told NBC's Today program Friday. "Throughout his campaign the president-elect has been talking about what we need to do. We need to put the middle class at the center of the policy approach in a way that it hasn't been these last years."

At the news conference, the president-elect also said he would review a letter sent to him by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in which the Iranian leader said "other nations also expect war-oriented policies, occupation, bullying, contempt for nations, and the imposition of discriminatory policies on them to be replaced by ones advocating justice, respect for human rights, friendship, and non-interference in other countries' internal affairs."

"Obviously how we approach and deal with a country like Iran is not something we should simply do in a knee-jerk fashion," Obama said.

Also at the news conference:

• When asked whether he had spoken to any ex-presidents after the election, Obama said he had "spoken to all of them that are living," — but in an apparent attempt at humor, added: "I didn't want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about doing any seances." Nancy Reagan endured derision after reports in 1988 that she routinely consulted an astrologer when planning her husband's schedule.

Later, Obama's spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter announced that Obama called the former first lady to apologize for "the careless and offhanded remark he made." Cutter added that Obama "expressed his admiration and affection" for Mrs. Reagan. The two had "a warm conversation," Cutter added.

• Obama said getting a dog for his two daughters — a promise he made to them if he won the presidency — is "a major issue." His daughter Malia has allergies, making the choice more difficult, he said. But the family also would like to find a dog in an animal shelter, he added.

"Obviously, a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me. So whether we're going to be able to balance those two things, I think, is a pressing issue on the Obama household," Obama said.

Kiely reported from Chicago. Contributing: Martha T. Moore; Randy Lilleston; Mark Memmott; Associated Press.