Obama's Monday mantra: I'll get back to you

Barack Obama provides few details about an economic stimulus package in his second news conference since winning the election.

Published November 24, 2008 5:57PM (EST)

Barack Obama's second press conference since winning the election was disciplined, focused and serious. What it wasn't was particularly newsy.

Obama politely but persistently refused to give even ballpark figures on how large an economic stimulus package he'd like to see Congress pass (though he did say he'd like to have it waiting for him to sign when he arrives at the Oval Office). He criticized the Big Three automakers for having no idea what they wanted to do with the billions in tax dollars they want given to them, but also indicated he didn't want Detroit going under. He pledged to do "whatever is required" to keep the financial system working, but didn't get into exactly what that might mean, preferring to wait for his newly appointed economic policy team to give him some proposals to sort through. He'll probably let the Bush tax cuts expire, but might not repeal them ahead of schedule.

Basically, the Q-and-A underscored the position Obama is in as he waits to take office -- he has no real policy authority (not even in the Senate, where he's already resigned his seat) but he needs to help reassure investors, employees and consumers that the economy isn't going to completely dissolve before he gets a chance to try to fix it.

"We are going to do what's required to jolt this economy back into shape," Obama said. "Now, it's going to be costly." But Monday wasn't the time to explain how he'd pay for new spending; that will come in another news conference planned for Tuesday.

That was more or less the mantra when it came to any kind of detail: later, not now. "I don't want to discuss numbers right now," Obama said. On Detroit, he said the auto industry "needs to come up with a plan" (but didn't offer many hints about how that plan should look). On tax cuts, "my economic team will be providing me a recommendation" on when and how to roll back the cuts for wealthy taxpayers.

Transition aides are careful to remind anyone who asks them that they're moving faster than most previous changeovers; by this time eight years ago, the Supreme Court hadn't even made Bush president-elect yet. Still, Obama may have to start sketching out more than vague outlines of his proposals soon. Congress will be back in town Dec. 8 to deal with Detroit again, and the newly elected (and more Democratic) House and Senate will arrive a few weeks before Inauguration Day. You can put reporters off with "not at this time," and the calm, steady leadership Obama displayed Monday will surely help put viewers at ease. But if he wants legislation ready to sign by Jan. 20, his economic team will have to get to work on details sooner rather than later.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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