Summoning state executives from across the country here, Mr. Obama sought to forge a bipartisan approach to the nation’s economic problems. He was met with pleas for a rapid infusion of federal money to create jobs, help those without health coverage and balance recession-ripped budgets.
“To solve this crisis and to ease the burden on our states, we’re going to need action, and we’re going to need action swiftly,” Mr. Obama told the governors in the historic Congress Hall, where lawmakers met in the early days of the Republic. “That means passing an economic recovery plan that helps both Wall Street and Main Street. And this administration does not intend to delay in getting you the help that we need.”
In a symbolic gesture of partnership with the governors, Mr. Obama plans to announce Wednesday that he has recruited another of their peers for his cabinet. At a news conference in Chicago, Mr. Obama will formally introduce Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico as his choice for secretary of commerce, Democrats close to the process said. Mr. Richardson, a former rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, threw his support to Mr. Obama after dropping out of the race despite intense courting by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President Bill Clinton.
Mr. Richardson will be the second governor elevated this week, after Janet Napolitano from neighboring Arizona was chosen Monday as secretary of homeland security. The commerce slot will be a consolation prize of sorts for Mr. Richardson, who wanted to be secretary of state but lost to Mrs. Clinton.
Hispanic groups have lobbied strongly on behalf of Mr. Richardson, who would be the only Latino cabinet officer named so far. Activists argue that a surge of Hispanic votes for Mr. Obama helped secure at least four states won by President Bush four years ago: Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.
Mr. Richardson was one of few current or incoming governors not on hand Tuesday at the National Governors Association meeting convened by Mr. Obama. Among those in the hall were Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, and several Republican governors who might run against Mr. Obama in 2012, including Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. Mr. Obama made a point of reaching out to them.
“A special message I want to deliver to my Republican colleagues who are here,” Mr. Obama said, flanked by Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. “I offer you the hand of friendship, the same commitment to partnership as I do my Democratic colleagues. There is a time for campaigning, and there is a time for governing. And one of the messages that Joe and I want to continually send is that we are not going to be hampered by ideology in trying to get this country back on track.”
Several governors said they were heartened by Mr. Obama’s interest in meeting with them so early. “He’s not going to let us hang in the wind,” Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, incoming chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said in an interview afterward. “And he said, ‘This is an introduction, not an ending meeting.’ ”
Other than a visit to the White House, the meeting was Mr. Obama’s first appearance outside Chicago since the election.
More than 40 states face budget shortfalls now totaling $30 billion and projected to rise to $60 billion by summer, with $120 billion more in spending gaps anticipated in the next fiscal year. Unlike the federal government, most states are required to balance their budgets annually.
Hoping to shape the economic package Mr. Obama wants to sign soon after taking office, the governors are seeking $136 billion for infrastructure projects already on the books and ready to break ground within months, and $40 billion to cover increased Medicaid costs. In addition to traditional roads and bridges, the projects would include improved medical information technology and expanded broadband Internet capacity.
“I’ve got hundreds of thousands of people in West Virginia who need safe drinking water and sanitation and roads,” that state’s governor, Joe Manchin III, said in an interview. “That’s investment, that’s not spending money. We don’t want to just throw money at something.”
Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, chairman of the National Governors Association, said his colleagues were not “asking for handouts,” emphasizing that states were doing their share by cutting spending and financing part of the cost of public works projects. “We are not asking for this money for ourselves,” said Mr. Rendell, a Democrat. “We are asking for it for the citizens of our states.”
Mr. Obama did not commit to specific aid numbers, but his incoming chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, told reporters on the plane ride back to Chicago that the new president agreed with the thrust of the requests. “We need to rebuild America,” Mr. Emanuel said. “We need to build those critical areas today to do it, and an economic recovery act has to do that.”
Mr. Emanuel said governors of both parties agreed, but a few expressed reservations about the fiscal impact of such spending. “The main question for some of us is how will going further into debt help the economy with problems that are created by debt,” said Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, a Republican.
Still, when asked at a news conference whether any would forgo federal money to hold down the deficit, none of the governors present volunteered.
“There is not a governor in this country that would turn down money for roads and bridges and infrastructure projects,” said Gov. Michael F. Easley of North Carolina, a Democrat. “The need is simply too great for those sorts of repairs and that work.”