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Published January 22 2009

Not everything goes smoothly as first family gets situated

WASHINGTON – The walls in the West Wing are oddly bare, the Oval Office still looks like it did during the Bush years, and advisers to the president are just trying to get their e-mail working. But let there be no doubt: This is now Barack Obama’s White House.

His young daughters, Malia and Sasha, got to take the day off from school Wednesday after an exhilarating late-night scamper around their new home – one that ended in style when they opened a door to find their favorite band, the Jonas Brothers.

Obama’s wife, Michelle, walked out of the Oval Office side-by-side with him – hardly a common image for that territory.

And then there was Obama himself, lightly rested after a late night of inaugural balls but ready to get started on his new job.

Here’s his first day as president:

Pray for the nation. Jump into Middle East diplomacy. Sign a batch of executive orders on ethics and open government. Hash over the twin crises of war and recession with top advisers. And open up the White House to greet some joyously overwhelmed visitors.

What the public did not see was Obama, standing alone with his thoughts in the Oval Office. He did that for about 10 minutes at the start of the day.

“He wanted to absorb the moment that he was in, to think about the people who have served before him, and also to think about the work that he is now undertaking,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

Obama also privately read a note left by his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Gibbs said he didn’t ask Obama about that one: “I knew he wasn’t going to tell me, anyway.”

Moving into a new place can always be tricky. Try doing it while attempting to move the country.

So some details will just have to wait, like whether to overhaul the Oval Office.

Obama made his first presidential phone calls to foreign leaders from the same desk used by Bush and others before him. The office’s signature rug, bursting with rays like sunshine, is the one that Bush and his wife picked.

Meanwhile, some of the people chosen to get out Obama’s message had trouble just getting cleared into the building.

Those who did found some glitches while signing onto their computers or getting their e-mail. Calls to the first lady’s office or the communications director rolled into voice mail – for the people who held those jobs under Bush.

The West Wing walls, normally covered with giant photos of the president, were blank and waiting for replacements.

Obama, purposeful as ever, was ready to go.

At the National Prayer Service, he seemed pensive. He had history all around him, including former President Bill Clinton, one of four living predecessors.

The Rev. Sharon Watkins urged Obama to listen to his better angels, not to succumb to the instinct “to pick up the sword, to seek out enemies, to build walls against the other.”

To be sure, she went on: “Someone has to stand watch and be ready to defend. And Mr. President, tag – you’re it!”

That brought laughter. There was more to come.

Back at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House, Obama came to sign some presidential directives. Everyone stood when he entered the room.

“Please be seated,” Obama responded, realizing it was his job to say that. “Still getting used to that whole thing.”

So it went. There was a slight feeling of winging it on the first full day of business.

As when Obama asked Vice President Joe Biden to swear in the senior staff. Biden agreed, with a bit of a zinger: “My memory is not as good as Justice Roberts’.” That was a little fun at the expense of Chief Justice John Roberts, who flubbed Obama’s oath one day earlier.


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