Obama Says Economic Crisis Comes First

President Obama's first live press conference in office, Feb. 9, 2009. Video by AP
By Anne E. Kornblut and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

President Obama declared last night in his first prime-time news conference that the task of saving and creating jobs is more important than cultivating the bipartisan cooperation he promised to bring to Washington, and he pressed his case for the massive economic stimulus plan working its way through Congress.

Warning that inaction could "turn a crisis into a catastrophe," Obama rejected criticism from Republicans about the legislation's effect on the federal deficit, noting that government debt had ballooned on his predecessor's watch. Although he called for lawmakers to break out of their "ideological rigidity," he was unapologetic as he pushed a package with a cost of more than $800 billion that has so far drawn only nominal Republican support.

"I can't afford to see Congress play the usual political games. What we have to do right now is deliver for the American people," Obama said just hours after the legislation narrowly cleared a key procedural hurdle in the Senate, where it is likely to gain final passage today. The bill will then become the subject of potentially contentious negotiations between House and Senate leaders. It is unclear whether it will reach the president's desk before a scheduled congressional recess next week.

Obama repeatedly stressed the need for swift and aggressive action on the economy, pitting his plan against those who he said would "do nothing" to assist a desperate public.

"So, you know, we can differ on some of the particulars, but again, the question I think that the American people are asking is: Do you just want government to do nothing, or do you want it to do something? If you want it to do something, then we can have a conversation," he said. "But doing nothing -- that's not an option, from my perspective." Obama defended the role of government in the recovery process, saying that "with the private sector so weakened by this recession, the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back to life."

The president fielded 13 questions from reporters in his first wide-ranging session since he took office, touching briefly on foreign policy, his long-range agenda and sports. But the economy dominated the event. Asked about the next allotment of money to aid troubled banks, he said he is dissatisfied with the way the first $350 billion was spent. "We didn't get as big a bang for the buck as we should have" from the Troubled Assets Relief Program, Obama said. "My immediate task is making sure that the second half of that money -- $350 billion -- is spent properly." That allocation process will begin today, when Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner is slated to detail the administration's strategy for releasing the remaining bailout money.

Obama stepped to the podium in the East Room of the White House at 8:01 p.m., opening with prepared remarks on the economy that set the tone for the night. Somber and focused, he alternated between defending some specific provisions of the legislation and discussing its broad framework, repeatedly arguing that the public would prefer even a flawed government response over inaction. He said he thought an economic recovery could begin to set in by 2010 but warned that 2009 will continue to be a "difficult year." He did not crack any jokes, aside from a playful greeting of veteran reporter Helen Thomas, and ended the appearance promptly at 9 p.m.

Still, the president conveyed a firm tone. Asked whether he risked appearing to be too much of an alarmist about the economic peril facing the United States, possibly undermining public confidence in the system, he became almost defensive. "No, no, no, no," he said. "I think that what I've said is what other economists have said across the political spectrum, which is that if you delay acting on an economy of this severity, then you potentially create a negative spiral that becomes much more difficult for us to get out of." He compared the situation to that of Japan in the 1990s, saying the Japanese, failing to act quickly enough, suffered a "lost decade."

"This is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill recession," he said.

In a brief foray into foreign policy, Obama said with regard to Iran that the administration "will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table, face-to-face diplomatic overtures" with the Islamic republic. He said that "there's been a lot of mistrust built up over the years, so it's not going to happen overnight" and that "even as we engage in this direct diplomacy, we are very clear about certain deep concerns" about Iranian links to militant groups and possible pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

In stark contrast to former president George W. Bush, Obama did not say that the United States would refuse to tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran. Instead, he all but invited Iran to signal that it, too, is interested in talks. "Now it's time for Iran to send some signals that it wants to act differently, as well, and recognize that, even as it has some rights as a member of the international community, with those rights come responsibilities," he said.

The news conference ended a day of action on the stimulus package: Obama traveled to Elkhart, Ind., to promote the legislation as it made its way toward the Senate floor, clearing a procedural hurdle by a vote of 61 to 36 that set the stage for final passage today. Only three Republicans -- moderate Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- supported the legislation. In the House, no Republicans voted for the $819 billion version of the stimulus package that passed on Jan. 28.

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