Obama urges financial action

? President-elect Obama assembled his economic team Friday and soberly told the nation that strong action is needed to confront “the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime.”

In his first news conference since being elected Tuesday, Obama called on Congress to extend unemployment benefits and pass a stimulus bill. But his more ambitious remedies, he said, must wait until he takes office Jan. 20.

Obama displayed an air of authority and confidence, standing before a dozen economic advisers and rows of American flags as he spoke for 20 minutes. He mixed lighthearted remarks about family pets (even calling himself a “mutt”) with grim-faced assessments of the nation’s economic predicament.

“Some of the choices that we make are going to be difficult,” he said, reading a statement before taking several questions. “It is not going to be easy for us to dig ourselves out of the hole that we are in. But America is a strong and resilient country.”

Obama urged Congress to pass an economic stimulus measure and extend unemployment benefits either before or just after he takes office. As for bigger decisions, he said, the nation has “only one government and one president at a time,” and now it is President Bush.

However, he said, “immediately after I become president, I will confront this economic crisis head-on by taking all necessary steps to ease the credit crisis, help hardworking families, and restore growth and prosperity.”

“I’m confident a new president can have an enormous impact,” he said.

Obama said he would focus on producing jobs, and he mentioned actions to help the auto industry, small businesses and state and local governments.

He left open the possibility that economic conditions might prompt him to change his tax plan, which would give a break to most families but raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 annually.

“I think that the plan that we’ve put forward is the right one,” he said, “but, obviously, over the next several weeks and months, we’re going to be continuing to take a look at the data and see what’s taking place in the economy as a whole.”

Obama said he will review a congratulatory letter from Iran’s leader and respond appropriately. It’s not something “that we should simply do in a knee-jerk fashion,” he said. Obama said he wants to be careful to send the signal to the world that “I’m not the president and I won’t be until Jan. 20.”

He said he appreciated the cooperation Bush has offered in smoothing his transition to the White House and the president’s “commitment that his economic policy team keep us informed.” He expressed gratitude to Bush for inviting him and his wife, Michelle, to the White House on Monday.

Obama said he expected to have a substantive conversation with Bush. “I am not going to anticipate problems,” he said.

As he prepares to join an exclusive club of presidents, Obama said, “I’ve spoken to all of them that are living.”

“I didn’t want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any seances,” he said with a grin, an apparent exaggerated reference to the former first lady’s fondness for astrology.

Obama and Biden met before the news conference with the transition economic advisory board, a high-powered collection of business, academic and government leaders. They included Lawrence Summers, who some have mentioned as a candidate for Treasury secretary, a post he held in the Clinton administration; Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, whose state has been hit hard by losses in the auto industry; Google CEO Eric Schmidt; and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.

Others attending included executives from Xerox Corp., Time Warner Inc.; and the Hyatt hotel company. Investor Warren Buffett called in by telephone.

Obama has been meeting privately with his transition team, receiving congratulatory phone calls from foreign leaders and intelligence briefings, and making decisions about who will help run his government.

One person frequently mentioned for a Cabinet post, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, will not be available until 2011, officials close to him said Friday. Rendell has two years left of his term, and Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll, a Democrat, is ailing. Next in line to be governor is the Republican president pro tempore the state Senate.

Rather than take the chance that the GOP would gain control of the governor’s office, Rendell has signaled he will stay put for the time being.

On Friday morning, Obama and his wife, Michelle, attended a parent-teacher conference at the University of Chicago Lab School where their daughters, Malia and Sasha, are students.

Obama planned to stay home through the weekend, with a blackout on news announcements so he and his staff can rest after the grueling campaign. He is planning a family getaway to Hawaii in December before they move to the White House, and to honor his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who died Sunday at her home there.