9 february 2009

INTERIOR: Department 'at center of administration's highest priorities' -- Michelle Obama
(02/09/2009)Noelle Straub, E&E reporter

Greeted by the sound of native drummers, first lady Michelle Obama visited the Interior Department today to cheer on its employees and plug the economic stimulus bill.

"The issues that you're working on, as you know, affect us all," Obama told an enthusiastic crowd. "You are at the center of this administration's highest priorities." Those priorities include securing the United States' energy future, protecting the natural environment and using natural resources as responsibly as possible, she said.

"These aren't only vital for the survival of our planet as we work to combat climate change but also incredibly important to strengthen our economy and the well-being of our families," Obama said.

The stimulus bill will help create new jobs, Obama told the roughly 700 employees gathered to hear her in person and thousands more watching via telecast around the country. "At a time when so many Americans are out of work, sound energy and environmental policies are going to help create thousands of jobs through the economic recovery and reinvestment plan," she said.

Interior is the third department Obama has visited on her tour to push the stimulus and to greet "our new co-workers and our new neighbors."

She noted that her husband also hit the road today to push the stimulus bill.

Obama also made an indirect reference to the ethics reforms being undertaken at the scandal-plagued Interior Department. "I know that this is an important time of reform and renewal here in this department," she said. "And as you begin the work -- the hard work -- of taking this department into a new era of excellence, I wanted to come by, again, to simply say thank you."

The first lady also said her husband will soon appoint a policy adviser to his senior White House staff to work with tribes and across the government on issues such as sovereignty, health care and education.

Obama was presented with a lavender shawl that was hand-appliqued by an Interior employee with horses and American Indian designs, which she modeled for the crowd.

Seven members of the intertribal drum group Black Bear Singers sat in a circle near the stage and played several gathering songs and then a traditional song of honor for Obama. "The song will provide her strength and courage and duration through her tenure and beyond, particularly as first lady," said Nedra Darling, director of public affairs for the assistance secretary for Indian Affairs. Darling, a member of the prairie band of the Potawatomi tribe of Kansas, presented Obama with the shawl.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar introduced her, saying he has seen the "calm, cool confidence and resolve" of the first couple ever since he and President Obama served together as the only two freshman Democrats in the Senate four years ago. "Michelle is a rock for the future of the nation," Salazar said.

Obama is the only first lady to have visited the department at least since Eleanor Roosevelt and perhaps since Nellie Taft, according to Carl Anthony, historian of the National First Ladies' Library.

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