John McCormick, Peter Nicholas, Christi Parsons
The Chicago Tribune (Interview)
December 10, 2008 - 1:00am,0...

Barack Obama says his presidency is an opportunity for the U.S. to renovate its relations with the Muslim world, starting the day of his inauguration and continuing with a speech he plans to deliver in an Islamic capital.

And when he takes the oath of office Jan. 20, he plans to be sworn in like every other president, using his full name: Barack Hussein Obama.

"I think we've got a unique opportunity to reboot America's image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular,'' Obama said Tuesday, promising an "unrelenting" desire to "create a relationship of mutual respect and partnership in countries and with peoples of good will who want their citizens and ours to prosper together."

The world, he said, "is ready for that message."

In a wide-ranging interview with Tribune reporters, Obama discussed his strategy for his first year in office, vigorously defended his choice for attorney general and reflected on his role as the first African American to be elected president.

He also made it clear that, even as he plans his move to Washington, his heart will remain in Chicago. His "Kennebunkport" will be the South Side, Obama said, and he pledged to return at least every couple months for some family down time.

The conversation was his first with a newspaper since his election on Nov. 4, and it came just hours after Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested on a federal conspiracy complaint. The complaint alleges that Blagojevich essentially tried to auction off the appointment to replace Obama in the U.S. Senate, but the president-elect declined to speak about any discussions between his representatives and those of the governor, a fellow Democrat.

Obama said he never has spoken personally to Blagojevich about his possible replacement, either before or since his victory. Shortly after the interview ended Tuesday afternoon, Obama's transition office released a statement saying top adviser David Axelrod misspoke last month when he said Obama had talked with Blagojevich about the Senate vacancy.

Citing an "ongoing investigation" into the matter, Obama said he considered it "inappropriate" to talk further about the situation.

As the Blagojevich drama unfolded across Dearborn Street in the federal courthouse, Obama lounged in an armchair in his spare black-and-gray office, a scattering of peanut shells from his afternoon snack littering the floor.

Obama said the country must take advantage of a unique chance to recalibrate relations around the globe, through a new diplomacy that emphasizes inclusiveness and tolerance as well as an unflinching stand against terrorism.

"The message I want to send is that we will be unyielding in stamping out the terrorist extremism we saw in Mumbai," Obama said, adding that he plans to give a major address in an Islamic capital as part of his global outreach.

Though world events and economic winds have made his agenda all the more challenging, Obama kept close counsel on how he plans to move forward.

He would not commit to specific plans on matters as varied as free trade, unionization and illegal immigration. Instead, he said, his nominees and advisers are studying the issues and will report back with recommendations.

Asked if he would support the extension of the fence between the U.S. and Mexican border, Obama deferred to his nominee for the Homeland Security Department, Janet Napolitano.

In similar fashion, he sidestepped questions about whether he would move quickly on promises to rework the North American Free Trade Agreement or push the so-called "card-check" law making it easier for unions to organize.

"My economic team is going to put together a package on trade and on worker issues,'' he said. "That will be presented to me. I don't want to anticipate right now what sequences will be on these issues.''

Likewise, he offered no hints about future Cabinet appointments, but voiced strong support for Eric Holder, his nominee for attorney general, by batting away concerns about his role in the controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich at the end of Bill Clinton's presidency.

"Everybody who looks at his record says the guy was an outstanding attorney, an outstanding prosecutor, an outstanding judge, an outstanding number two at the Justice Department,'' Obama said. "And Eric has acknowledged the Rich pardon was a mistake on his part, not having caught that earlier.

"I agree with him," Obama said. "I think it was a mistake. But when you look at the totality of his experience, there's no doubt he's going to be an outstanding attorney general.''

Some liberal supporters have expressed disappointment over some of Obama's choices, like the one to retain Robert Gates as secretary of defense, but Obama said supporters have no cause for concern.

He is steadfast on his "agenda of change," he said.

"On all the promises that I made during the campaign there has been no sense I'm backing off,'' he said. "What I'm putting in place is a Cabinet of extraordinarily qualified, competent people who would not have accepted my offer for them to join my administration unless they believed in my vision.''

Obama is planning his administration mostly in a suite of offices in the federal building, spare in décor but replete with comforting remnants of his two years on the campaign trail. On his book shelf are two basketballs, and there's a third by the door. Just outside his personal office sits Reggie Love, the former college athlete who does double duty as personal assistant and basketball partner.

Most of the transition team is at work in Washington, so Secret Service agents outnumber staff members in Chicago.

From this Spartan suite, Obama contemplates issues both great and small.

One simple matter comes down to three little words, and on them he has made up his mind: he won't shrink from using his full name when he takes the oath of office.

During the campaign, Obama's detractors would often invoke his middle name, Hussein, in an attempt to falsely paint him as a Muslim. Obama, a Christian, doesn't care.

"I think the tradition is that they use all three names, and I will follow the tradition," he said. "I'm not trying to make a statement one way or another. I'll do what everybody else does.''

And then there are the grand issues, like the burden placed on him by history. As the first African-American president, he acknowledges, he thinks about it.

"The biggest challenges we face right now in improving race relations have to do with the universal concerns of Americans across color lines," he said. "If we are creating jobs throughout this economy, then African-Americans and Latinos, who are disproportionately unemployed, are going to be swept up in that rising tide."

"I think that more than anything is going to improve race relations," he said, "a sense of common purpose.''

Though he hasn't taken on a singular spiritual adviser, months after the controversial parting with his former pastor, Obama said he has found inspiration in a "prayer circle" of supportive clergy leaders.

Pastors on that regular prayer phone call toward the end of the campaign included T.D. Jakes, of the Dallas-based mega-church The Potter's House, Saddleback mega-church pastor Rick Warren and Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"I'm reliant on the pastors who are friends of mine, and who I talk to for support, and my own prayer life at home," he said.

Obama said he and his wife, Michelle, haven't gone church-shopping in Washington yet, mainly because they are trying to pull off a massive move "without losing anything"--especially, he joked, either of their two children.

Even in the White House, though, he doesn't plan to sever ties to home. He made reference to former President George H.W. Bush's White House getaway--Kennebunkport, Maine.

"Let me explain to you, my Kennebunkport is on the South Side of Chicago," he said. "Our friends are here. Our family is here. We are going to try to come back here as often as possible . . . at least once every six weeks or couple months."


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