CHICAGO – Barack Obama says his presidency is an opportunity for the United States to spread a message of tolerance, starting the day of his inauguration and continuing with a speech he plans to deliver somewhere in the Muslim world.
And when he takes the oath of office Jan. 20, he plans to be sworn in like every other president, using his full name: Barack Hussein Obama.
“I think we’ve got a unique opportunity to reboot America’s image around the world and also in the Muslim world in particular,” Obama said Tuesday, promising an “unrelenting” desire to “create a relationship of mutual respect and partnership in countries and with peoples of good will who want their citizens and ours to prosper together.”
The world, he said, “is ready for that message.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Obama discussed his strategy for his first year in office, vigorously defended his choice for attorney general and reflected on his role as the first black to be elected president.
Obama said the country must take advantage of a unique chance to recalibrate relations around the globe, through diplomacy that emphasizes inclusiveness and tolerance as well as an unflinching stand against terrorism.
“The message I want to send is that we will be unyielding in stamping out the terrorist extremism we saw in Mumbai,” Obama said, adding that he plans to give a major address in an Islamic capital as part of his global outreach.
Though world events and economic winds have made his agenda all the more challenging, Obama kept close counsel on how he plans to move forward.
He would not commit to specific plans on matters as varied as free trade, unionization and illegal immigration. Instead, he said, his nominees and advisers are studying the issues and will report back with recommendations.
He offered no hints about future Cabinet appointments, but voiced strong support for Eric Holder, his nominee for attorney general, by batting away concerns about his role in the controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
“Everybody who looks at his record says the guy was an outstanding attorney, an outstanding prosecutor, an outstanding judge, an outstanding No. 2 at the Justice Department,” Obama said. “And Eric has acknowledged the Rich pardon was a mistake on his part, not having caught that earlier.”
Some liberal supporters have expressed disappointment over some of Obama’s choices, like the one to retain Robert M. Gates as secretary of defense. But the president-elect said his backers have no cause for concern.
He is steadfast on his “agenda of change,” he said.
“On all the promises that I made during the campaign, there has been no sense I’m backing off,” he said. “What I’m putting in place is a Cabinet of extraordinarily qualified, competent people who would not have accepted my offer for them to join my administration unless they believed in my vision.”
One simple matter for the president-elect comes down to three little words, and on them he has made up his mind: He won’t shrink from using his full name when he takes the oath of office.
During the campaign, Obama’s detractors often invoked his middle name in an attempt to paint him as a Muslim. Obama, a Christian, doesn’t care.
“I think the tradition is that they use all three names, and I will follow the tradition, not trying to make a statement one way or another,” he said. “I’ll do what everybody else does.”
And then there are the grand issues, like the burden placed on him by history. As the first black president, he acknowledges, he thinks about it.
“The biggest challenges we face right now in improving race relations have to do with the universal concerns of Americans across color lines,” he said. “If we are creating jobs throughout this economy, then, you know, African Americans and Latinos, who are disproportionately unemployed, they’re going to be swept up in that rising tide.
“I think that, more than anything, is going to improve race relations,” he said.
Even when in the White House, Obama said, he doesn’t plan to sever ties to home. He made reference to former President George H.W. Bush’s White House getaway – Kennebunkport, Maine.
“Let me explain to you, my Kennebunkport is … Chicago,” he said. “Our friends are here. Our family is here. We are going to try to come back here as often as possible … at least once every six weeks or couple months.”