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Obama Wastes No Time In Office

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. And this Friday morning, President Obama has been in charge at the White House since Tuesday at noon. Even though it hasn't yet been a full week, we thought we'd check in with NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea to see how the new team is adjusting. Good morning, Don.

DON GONYEA: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So, of course, you've spent quite a bit of time around the White House in these last years. The new president has made some major moves in his first days in office, including yesterday's executive order announcing that the Guantanamo Bay detention center will be closed. Talk to us about that.

GONYEA: Exactly, and it's just one way, just the handling of that particular topic, that makes you realize how different things are now from how they were just a week ago. But that action on Guantanamo was just one of several things he signed yesterday. And even though it doesn't answer all of the questions about how closing the center will work - the detention center will work, it puts in motion steps that should result in its closing within a year. He also yesterday addressed the issue of interrogation of prisoners; again, he reiterated, as he did during the transition, during the campaign, there will be no torture, that the Geneva Conventions will apply. And he headed over to the State Department. He greeted his brand-new secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. He appointed a special envoy to the Middle East, former Senator George Mitchell, who gets to work immediately. And at the State Department, he really, really stressed how big of a role diplomacy will play in his foreign policy.

MONTAGNE: Now, how - in moving, it seems, quickly to an outsider, is it as quick as it seems?

GONYEA: It is very quick. It's not that presidents don't come right out of the box and do things, but there is a lot of symbolism here. These are very concrete steps he took, every single one of them. But the symbolism: to the world, the president sent a very direct message around the world on foreign policy, that things are now different in the White House, and that this is a very new path in terms of how the U.S. will fight terrorism, and how the U.S. will play the role of leader in the world.

MONTAGNE: Now, there was a new voice at the White House yesterday that we'll be hearing a lot from in the coming, you know, moments of this new administration, a briefing by press secretary Robert Gibbs.

GONYEA: We are all going to get to know him very well. If there were some opening-day jitters for him, he masked them. He may be a new face to the public, but he played a big role during the campaign, both advising candidate Obama on his dealings with the media and in dealing with us directly. At that briefing yesterday, the questions really did run the gamut. He got a pretty good sense of how things go, first time out. He got asked about torture. He got asked about Guantanamo. He got asked about the economy. He got asked about the president's BlackBerry. The president will keep that BlackBerry, if people are wondering. But let's just listen to one exchange to get a sense of Gibbs. The questioner here is Major Garrett from Fox News.

(Soundbite of press conference, January 23, 2009)

Mr. MAJOR GARRETT (Senior White House Correspondent, Fox News): Are you not prepared today to say that it will be an administration benchmark not to allow any major financial institutions in this country fail?

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary, Barack Obama Administration): Let me - I'm prepared to say, and I'll reiterate what the president said throughout the campaign and transition, that the president will do everything possible to prevent a financial catastrophe, to ensure the working of the financial system, to get credit and lending moving again, to create - or save or create 3 to 4 million jobs to get the economy moving again.

GONYEA: And again, certainly some answers - like that one, Renee - sounded an awful lot like campaign rhetoric.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, on message sounds like - for a starter. But you know, maybe he'll loosen up as time goes by.

GONYEA: Exactly.

MONTAGNE: Now, we heard that the first day or two were marked by glitches - phones that didn't work, email addresses - and this is technical problems. You know, how normal is that?

GONYEA: It seemed to be a little more glitchy than usual, for me. But I'll tell you, yesterday at one point, they made an announcement over the PA system. They called for the press pool to gather outside. Sounds pretty mundane, but that PA hadn't worked for the first 48 hours. So, a cheer went up. People had found their desks. People have been getting through security, it seems. But it was really strange watching this highest of high-tech campaigns struggle with these basic technical issues for a couple days.

MONTAGNE: And just a quick thing, that PA system is actually quite important, because it sort of calls you guys - you reporters - when the president does something important, like walk into the room.

GONYEA: We got a call last night. The president - yeah, the press should come to the briefing room. We all went up there, and here comes the president, something that doesn't happen often. Renee, he even came down to the basement, where the radio folks live. It's not the prettiest part of the White House.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Oh, OK.

GONYEA: But that's where I live, and it was unusual seeing him come through like that, especially so early.

MONTAGNE: NPR's White House correspondent, Don Gonyea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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