By Michael D. Shear and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
FORT MYERS, Fla., Feb. 10 -- President Obama likes to portray the battle over the economic stimulus package that passed the Senate on Tuesday as a stark choice between his approach and that of those who would "do nothing."
"Nothing is not an option. You didn't send me to Washington to do nothing," Obama told a gathering of 1,500 here on Tuesday, bringing the crowd to its feet as he campaigned for passage of the more than $800 billion package.
The president used the same language Monday in his first prime-time news conference, suggesting that lawmakers who opposed his prescription want the government to ignore the deepening economic crisis.
"There seems to be a set of folks who -- I don't doubt their sincerity -- who just believe that we should do nothing," he said.
But in truth, few of those involved in the stimulus debate are suggesting that the government should not take action to aid the cratering economy.
Many of the president's fiercest congressional critics support a stimulus package of similar size but think it should be built around a much higher proportion of tax cuts than new spending. Others have called for a plan that is half the size of the one headed for a House-Senate conference -- still massive by historical standards.
Even those who think that no new government spending is necessary do not advocate a stand-still approach. A newspaper ad by the Cato Institute, signed by 250 economists, argued for removing "impediments to work, saving, investment and production" and said that "lower tax rates and a reduction in the burden of government are the best ways of using fiscal policy to boost growth."
"I don't know of a single Republican in the House or Senate who thinks Congress should do nothing in the wake of this recession," Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said Tuesday. "We want to do something that will work."
But if Republicans express frustration about Obama's rhetorical device, they need only look back to the man he succeeded for precedent. George W. Bush was proficient at setting up straw men when arguing for his policies, only to tear down the positions of those phantom opponents as irresponsible, unworkable or downright shameful in comparison with his own.
During debates with Democrats about the Iraq war, Bush often cast his rivals as believing that "the war is lost and not worth another dime or another day." He sometimes derided critics of his health-care policies as people "who believe that the federal government ought to be the decider of health care." Talking about the fight against terrorism, Bush often warned of those "who say we are not at war."
Like Bush, Obama does not single out his critics by name. Aides pointed Tuesday to an economist quoted in a recent article who said: "As our history shows, the economy can recover strongly on its own, if only the politicians will stay out of the way."
And Obama himself acknowledged during his news conference Monday night that "there are others who recognize that we've got to do a significant recovery package, but they're concerned about the mix of what's in there. And if they're sincere about it, then I'm happy to have conversations."
But on several occasions in speeches over the past week, the president has conveyed to audiences that the choice in Washington is a clear one between passage of his plan and doing nothing. Even as the Senate was voting to approve his stimulus package, Obama wagged his finger at lawmakers whom he described as wanting to do nothing for those who are suffering the most.
"Of course, there are some critics, always critics, who say we can't afford to take on these priorities," Obama told the crowd. "But we have postponed and neglected them for too long"
He added: "I can tell you with complete confidence that a failure to act in the face of this crisis will only worsen our problems."
On Tuesday, he stood in Fort Myers with a top GOP supporter of his former presidential rival as he spent a second day highlighting a bipartisan assessment of the impact of the economic crisis on Americans. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who was on Sen. John McCain's shortlist for vice president, introduced Obama at a town hall meeting in a part of his state that has a double-digit unemployment rate and the highest home foreclosure rate in the nation.
Beyond allowing him to more starkly frame the debate over the stimulus package, Obama's appearances in Fort Myers and in Elkhart, Ind., a day earlier also provided the new commander in chief a chance to demonstrate some of the skills he honed on the campaign trail after three weeks in the sometimes stifling setting of the White House.
"Testing, one, two, three. All right, everybody have a seat," the president said as he started his question-and-answer session at a convention center in Fort Myers. "And I think I'll go girl, boy, girl, boy, so that I avoid any trouble, all right? And stand up when you ask your question, as well, so we can all see you. All right?"
Later, he stepped off the stage to express concern for Henrietta Hughes, who cried as she described living with her family in a car. "We need our own kitchen and our own bathroom," she pleaded. "Please help."
Julio, a college student who works at McDonald's, waved his baseball cap wildly throughout the event to get the president's attention, and when he did, Obama took advantage of the opportunity to connect the questioner's plight to his own top legislative priority.
"I'm going to call on this guy, because -- because he has a cap and he thought I had called on him and I didn't," Obama said. "So, all right, right here, the guy with the cap. Last question. Of course, now it better be a good one. Go ahead."
Obama used the question to pitch the importance of hard work, tax breaks for low-income workers and the $2,500 tuition tax credit in the stimulus package.
"One of his great appeals is his normalcy," said deputy communications director Dan Pfeiffer, who said Obama is most effective "when he can pierce the veil between himself and the public."