Image: Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel in Oval Office
Pete Souza  /  White House handout via EPA
President Barack Obama meets with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday in the Oval Office. Emanuel is among the senior staff affected by the pay freeze announced by the president.
NBC News and news services
updated 1/21/2009 3:59:59 PM ET 2009-01-21T20:59:59

In a first-day flurry of activity, President Barack Obama on Wednesday set up shop in the Oval Office, summoned advisers to begin dealing with war and recession and ordered new lobbying rules for "a clean break from business as usual."

He also froze salaries for top White House staff members, placed phone calls to Mideast leaders and had aides circulate a draft executive order that would close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay within a year.

Devoting swift attention to the Mideast turmoil, Obama prepared to give George Mitchell, the former Senate Democratic leader, a top diplomatic post for the region.

Unveiling ethics rules that he portrayed as the fulfillment of a major campaign promise, Obama said that "the way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable." The rules are needed, he added, "to help restore faith in government, without which we cannot deliver the changes that we were sent here to make."

The pay freeze affects the roughly 100 White House employees who make more than $100,000 a year. "Families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington," Obama said.

Obama's new lobbying rules will ban aides from trying to influence the administration when they leave his staff. Those already hired will be banned from working on matters they have previously lobbied on, or to approach agencies that they once targeted.

The rules also ban lobbyists from giving gifts of any size to any member of his administration. It wasn't immediately clear whether the ban would include the traditional "previous relationships" clause, allowing gifts from friends or associates with which an employee comes in with strong ties.

The new rules also stipulate that anyone who leaves his administration cannot try to influence former friends and colleagues for at least two years. Obama is requiring all staff to attend to an ethics briefing like one he said he attended last week.

Obama called the rules tighter "than under any other administration in history." They followed pledges during his campaign to be strict about the influence of lobbyists in his White House.

"The new rules on lobbying alone, no matter how tough, are not enough to fix a broken system in Washington," he said. "That's why I'm also setting rules that govern not just lobbyists but all those who have been selected to serve in my administration."

'Too much secrecy'
In an attempt to deliver on pledges of a transparent government, Obama said he would change the way the federal government interprets the Freedom of Information Act. He said he was directing agencies that vet requests for information to err on the side of making information public — not to look for reasons to legally withhold it — an alteration to the traditional standard of evaluation.

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Just because a government agency has the legal power to keep information private does not mean that it should, Obama said. Reporters and public-interest groups often make use of the law to explore how and why government decisions were made; they are often stymied as agencies claim legal exemptions to the law.

"For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city," Obama said.

He said the orders he was issuing Wednesday will not "make government as honest and transparent as it needs to be" nor go as far as he would like.

"But these historic measures do mark the beginning of a new era of openness in our country," Obama said. "And I will, I hope, do something to make government trustworthy in the eyes of the American people, in the days and weeks, months and years to come."

Mideast diplomacy
Earlier Wednesday, the president called the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan following the Israeli military assault on Gaza.

"He used this opportunity on his first day in office to communicate his commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term, and to express his hope for their continued cooperation and leadership," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement.

"In the aftermath of the Gaza conflict," Gibbs added, the president "emphasized his determination to work to help consolidate the cease-fire by establishing an effective anti-smuggling regime to prevent Hamas from rearming, and facilitating in partnership with the Palestinian Authority a major reconstruction effort for Palestinians in Gaza."

Also Wednesday, Obama and the first lady, Michelle Obama, attended the prayer service at the National Cathedral. Joining them there were Biden and his wife, Jill. Former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Secretary of State-nominee Hillary Clinton, were also in the front row with the first family.

Pushing his economic plan
Obama began his morning with meetings with his top economic advisers, which meshed with quickened efforts in Congress to add top Cabinet officials to the roster of those confirmed on Tuesday and to advance the economic stimulus measure that is a top priority of his administration.

The enormity of Obama's challenge on the economy was evident in the mixed messages coming from Capitol Hill.

Rep. David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, expressed doubt that the currently planned $825 billion economic stimulus package would be enough, calling the proposal "no silver bullet." At the same time, House Republicans requested a meeting with Obama to air their worries that the plan was too big.

Poll finds optimism
A new poll underscored the sense of anticipation that accompanied Obama into office.

The Associated Press-Knowledge Networks survey found that by a 3-1 margin, people feel more optimistic about the country's future now that Obama has been inaugurated, including 30 percent of Republicans.

Obama and his wife arrived at the White House around 1 a.m. after attending 10 official inaugural balls.

Several hours later he walked into the most famous office in America for the first time as president.

Press secretary Gibbs said in a statement that Obama spent 10 minutes alone and read a note left for him by former President George W. Bush that was in an envelope marked “To: .44, From: .43.”

The war in Iraq that he has promised to end featured prominently in Obama's first day as well.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, were among those called in for a meeting later Wednesday as the new president assumed the role of commander in chief.

In his inaugural address on Tuesday, Obama said his goal was to "responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan."

The two unfinished wars are twinned for Obama. He has promised to bring U.S. combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office, as long as doing so wouldn't endanger either the Americans left behind for training and terrorism-fighting nor the security gains in Iraq. And he has said he would use that drawdown to bolster the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, where U.S.-backed fighters are losing ground against a resurgent Taliban.

Within hours of Obama's taking the oath of office on Tuesday, Emanuel ordered all federal agencies to put the brakes on any pending regulations that the Bush administration sought to push through in its final days.

More on Obama Inauguration

The Associated Press and NBC News' Chuck Todd contributed to this report.

Video: President Obama gets down to brass tacks

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