Barack Obama delivered his first press conference as president-elect on Friday in the same style he ran his campaign: cool, measured, serious and lightened by dry humour. But he made no attempt to play down the scale of economic challenges that await when he takes office in January.

“We are facing the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime, and we’re going to have to act swiftly to resolve it,” he said. “I’m going to confront this economic crisis head-on by taking all necessary steps to ease the credit crisis, help hard-working families and restore growth and prosperity.” He calmly fielded questions on issues from the economy to Iran during the 20-minute session in Chicago but stressed that the US had only “one president at a time” and that his turn did not start until January 20.

Mr Obama said he would review a congratulatory letter sent by Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s president, marking the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution that an Iranian leader has reached out in such a way to an incoming US president.

But he reiterated his opposition to Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and called for renewed international efforts to stop it happening.

On a lighter note, the president-elect joked about his family’s search for a pet dog to take to the White House. “This is a major issue,” he said. “I think it’s generated more interest on our website than just about anything.”

Mr Obama had earlier sat down with his economic advisers, just as fresh unemployment data underlined the grim outlook. Experts from business, finance and academia were among the group assembled in Chicago to address the financial crisis and slumping economy.

“We’re not starting from nowhere,” said Larry Summers, a Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and key Obama adviser, ahead of the session. “Throughout his campaign, the president-elect has been talking about what we need to do,” he added. “We need to put the middle class at the centre of the policy approach in a way it hasn’t been these last years.” Mr Summers refused to be drawn on speculation that he will be involved in Mr Obama’s administration.

Timothy Geithner, chairman of the New York Fed, is considered his main rival for the Treasury job. Also on Mr Obama’s 17-member transition advisory board are Robert Rubin, another former Treasury secretary under Mr Clinton, Warren Buffett, the investor, and Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google.

Joe Biden, the vice-president-elect, also attended the session, held hours after the release of data showing the unemployment rate had risen from 6.1 per cent in September to 6.5 per cent – its highest level since 1994 – after 240,000 job losses in October.

Mr Summers said there was no “silver bullet” available to the new administration. “We didn’t get into this situation in a day or a week and we’re not going to get out of it in a day or a week.”

Before the meeting, Mr Obama started returning the phone calls that greeted his victory. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, congratulated Mr Obama on a “brilliant” election win during a 30-minute exchange, characterised as “extremely warm” by Mr Sarkozy’s office.

British officials said Gordon Brown, the prime minister, and Mr Obama had a “very friendly and positive” 10-minute conversation on a range of subjects. Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, was said to have talked to Mr Obama on “the need to continue and advance the peace process, while maintaining the security of the state of Israel”.

Other leaders who called included Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s president, and Taro Aso, Japan’s prime minister.

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