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.
In his hour-long appearance, Obama faced few questions about the war in Iraq, which he came to office vowing to end, although he was asked at one point whether he would continue the policy of banning photographs of flag-draped coffins of troops returning from war. "We are in the process of reviewing those policies in conversations with the Department of Defense, so I don't want to give you an answer now before I've evaluated that review and understand all the implications involved," he said.
Asked about a new proposal to establish a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate the potential misdeeds of the Bush administration, Obama demurred, saying he has not yet seen its details. But he again said that he is more interested in looking forward than backward, and that he wants to unite all members of the intelligence community, some of whom he said had been unfairly tarnished.
Obama responded to a question about an admission earlier yesterday by the New York Yankees all-star Alex Rodriguez that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, calling it "depressing news." And he backed up an eyebrow-raising assertion by Vice President Biden that some of his work as president may have a 30 percent chance of failure, saying that Biden was simply describing the "magnitude of the challenges that we have."
Obama's remarks on partisanship -- a gridlock he once vowed to break as part of his signature campaign promise -- were perhaps most striking. Conveying exasperation with Republicans to whom he had extended an olive branch since taking office, the president said he will continue his outreach in the hope of a compromise down the line. But he will not, he said, allow political differences to trump the needs of the public. And he suggested he might have applied tougher negotiating tactics.
"In terms of the historic record here, the Republicans were brought in early and were consulted. And you'll remember that, when we initially introduced our framework, they were pleasantly surprised and complimentary about the tax cuts that were presented in that framework. Those tax cuts are still in there," he said. "I mean, I suppose what I could have done is started off with no tax cuts, knowing that I was going to want some, and then let them take credit for all of them, and maybe that's the lesson I learned. But there was consultation; there will continue to be consultation."
Obama swiftly dismissed claims of fiscal irresponsibility, saying: "It's a little hard for me to take criticism from folks, about this recovery package, after they presided over a doubling of the national debt. I'm not sure they have a lot of credibility when it comes to fiscal responsibility."
After its expected Senate passage today, the stimulus package will become the focus of negotiations between the Senate and the House. Obama's public relations blitz this week is designed to hasten that process and to encourage negotiators to restore some education provisions that were stripped from the Senate version, even as they try not to escalate the overall cost. The Senate compromise, according to the Congressional Budget Office, is $838 billion.
Obama will add a new twist when he travels today to Fort Myers, Fla.: He will be introduced at his town hall meeting by Gov. Charlie Crist, one of the few Republicans who are backing the plan in the face of conservative complaints about its size and scope and that it does not rely more heavily on tax cuts. Crist issued a joint statement with Obama yesterday in which he praised the president for continuing to "work hard to reignite the U.S. economy."
Obama advisers have also added another job-related stop for the president, on Thursday in Peoria, Ill., where he will visit a Caterpillar plant. The heavy-equipment company recently shed 20,000 jobs.
Cabinet officials are also being dispatched to spread the message. This morning, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is scheduled to visit Wakefield High School in Arlington to discuss the effect of the stimulus package on education, his office said.
After a difficult few days in which Republicans seized evidence of public resistance to the stimulus package, top Obama aides pushed back yesterday, distributing survey data from a new Gallup poll showing that a strong majority of Americans support the president and that just over half, 51 percent, think that passing a stimulus plan is "critically important."
"There is strong support for this," adviser David Axelrod told reporters aboard Air Force One during the flight to Indiana. "One thing that we learned over two years is that there's a whole different conversation in Washington than there is out here."
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.