An emotional President-elect Barack Obama left his Chicago home and took up temporary residence in a grand Washington hotel Sunday, his administration-in-waiting already burdened by scandal, war and congressional controversy.
On his way to join his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha, who since Saturday have been ensconced at the historic Hay-Adams Hotel, Obama revealed to reporters that his leave-taking from Chicago had a poignant moment.
“I choked up a little bit leaving my house today. Malia’s friend had dropped off an album of the two of them together,” Obama said on the plane conveying him to his new life and responsibilities. “They had been friends since preschool, and I just looked through the pages and the house was empty and it was a little tough, it got me.”
As Obama journeyed to the nation’s capital, there were more hints of the immense challenges confronting the man poised to become the nation’s 44th president Jan. 20.
A new war expanded in the Middle East, with fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip threatening to complicate Obama’s plans to begin reshaping America’s approach to that volatile part of the world.
Politics and scandal continued to swirl around the search for Obama’s successor in the Senate.
A scandal involving state contracts in New Mexico prompted Obama’s nominee for Commerce secretary, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, to bow out of contention Sunday.
And on Capitol Hill, prospects dimmed for swift passage of a massive stimulus package as congressional leaders indicated the legislation Obama had hoped to sign after being sworn in on Inauguration Day would not reach his desk until later.
“It’s going to be very difficult to get the package put together that early,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said on “Fox News Sunday.” Hoyer said he hoped lawmakers could send something to the new president before Congress adjourned for recess in mid-February.
On Obama’s plane, incoming White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said he agreed with Hoyer that it was “very, very unlikely” that an economic stimulus package would be ready by Jan. 20. Republicans have already indicated unease at a package that could top $775 billion at a time when the national debt is skyrocketing.
The president-elect plans to meet with senior Democrats and Republicans today on Capitol Hill to discuss the stimulus package, likely to be his first legislative test.
The new administration is working with congressional Democrats on a plan that would allocate 40% of the package to tax cuts for businesses and individuals, according to a senior Democratic aide on Capitol Hill.
Aside from praising Richardson’s decision in a brief statement, Obama did not address the darkening horizon as he left Chicago for the last time as a private citizen.
The 47-year-old former Illinois senator spent Sunday morning in his transition office and then exercised at a gym before heading to the airport for the flight to Washington on an Air Force plane.
The Obamas decided to come to the capital early so their daughters could start classes today at the prestigious Sidwell Friends School.
Presidents-elect and their families traditionally spend the few days before their inaugurations at Blair House, the White House’s official guest house, which is across the street from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
But because the house was booked solid for the two weeks before Inauguration Day, the Obamas took rooms at the Hay-Adams, a posh century-old hotel that overlooks Lafayette Square, which is directly north of the White House.
Outside the Hay-Adams on Sunday, the air of anticipation lingered as small groups of curious onlookers lined the barricades blocking off streets, eager for a glimpse of the new first family.
Steven De Vries and Bente Van De Nes, both political science students from Amsterdam, said they were stunned by the enthusiasm for Obama they had seen during their 10-day holiday in America.
“People in Holland would never do this. They are too cynical,” De Vries said.
Farther along the barricade, Hallie Baker, a 23-year-old management student at American University in Washington who voted for Obama, acknowledged that the new obstacles were immense.
“It’s hard to believe things will change right away,” she said. “But this is our best chance. My hope is still there.”