By Michael D. Shear, Michael A. Fletcher and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 30, 2009
One hundred days into his term, President Obama used a pair of public events Wednesday to chart how far he has steered the country from the course set by the Bush administration, saying, "We are off to a good start, but it is just a start."
Capitalizing on the heightened public attention surrounding the milestone, Obama said his early achievements include setting a timeline to end the U.S. combat role in Iraq -- a war he inherited from President George W. Bush -- and moving quickly to remake an economy suffering as a result of irresponsible borrowing during Bush's tenure.
But his most pointed comments during a day that included a prime-time news conference at the White House and a town-hall forum in Missouri involved his decision to ban waterboarding and other abusive interrogation methods sanctioned by the Bush administration for use against terrorism suspects.
Last night, Obama flatly called those techniques "torture" and said the practice "corrodes the character of a country."
He said the "public justification" of those methods, including assertions by former vice president Richard B. Cheney that they helped save American lives, "doesn't answer the core question, which is: Could we have gotten that same information without resorting to these techniques? And it doesn't answer the broader question: Are we safer as a consequence of having used these techniques?"
"This is a decision that I'm very comfortable with," Obama said. "And I think the American people over time will recognize that it is better for us to stick to who we are, even when we're taking on an unscrupulous enemy."
Obama appeared relaxed and reflective throughout the news conference, the third of his presidency, and he struck a reassuring tone on issues as diverse as the widening swine flu crisis and the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. With nearly seven in 10 Americans approving of his performance, according to polling, Obama spoke more personally than he has before on issues such as abortion and the surprises he has encountered since taking office.
He said he is encouraged that two large U.S. carmakers will remain in business. He said he is "confident" that Pakistan's military has a secure hold on its nuclear arsenal even as he acknowledged that he is "gravely concerned" about the stability of that country's government in the face of Taliban gains. And twice he detailed the precautions people should take to avoid exposure to swine flu -- wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough, don't go to work if you feel sick.
"I know it sounds trivial," Obama said, "but it makes a huge difference."
Obama spent his 100th day in office in much the same way he spent the previous 99 -- in the public eye. He began the day welcoming Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter into the Democratic Party, bringing it closer to a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate, and ended it with the news conference.
In between, Obama traveled to Missouri, a state he narrowly lost to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in last year's election. At a boisterous town-hall meeting in Arnold, a distant suburb of St. Louis, Obama said, "We have begun to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, and we've begun the work of remaking America."
"I'm pleased with the progress we've made, but I'm not satisfied," Obama told the cheering crowd at Fox Senior High School. "I'm confident in the future, but I'm not content with the present."
The celebratory atmosphere of Obama's day, however, was disturbed by a Commerce Department report showing that the U.S. economy contracted at an annualized rate of 6.1 percent in the first quarter..
But economists said that although the economic retreat was precipitous, there are signs that the bottom of the 16-month-old recession is in sight. U.S. credit markets, home prices and consumer spending are showing signs of improvement, and payments from the government's $787 billion stimulus plan are beginning to flow into the economy.
Obama used the town-hall meeting, and his news conference last night, to highlight elements of his long-term plan to build a sustainable economy. Congress yesterday easily approved a $3.4 trillion spending plan, which passed the House by a vote of 233 to 193 and the Senate 53 to 43.
The spending plan includes money for such domestic priorities as expanding health-care coverage, improving the quality of and access to all stages of public education, and developing an alternative energy industry. But Republicans and some conservative Democrats have criticized Obama, saying he has failed to identify ways to pay for his expensive initiatives over the long term, potentially ballooning the national debt in the years to come.
At the town hall, the president responded sharply to the criticism, saying, "I know you've been hearing all these arguments about, oh, Obama is just spending crazy, look at these huge trillion-dollar deficits, blah, blah, blah."
"Well, let me make a point," he said. "Number one, we inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit -- that wasn't me. Number two, there is almost uniform consensus among economists that in the middle of the biggest . . . financial crisis since the Great Depression, we had to take extraordinary steps."
He added, "We are going to have to tighten our belts, but we're going to have to do it in an intelligent way, and we've got to make sure the people who are helped are working American families."
During the news conference, Obama said he was most surprised "by the number of critical issues that appear to be coming to a head all at the same time." And he said he was most "sobered by the fact that change in Washington comes slow. That there is still a certain quotient of political posturing and bickering that takes place even when we're in the middle of really big crises."
"I would like to think that everybody would say, you know what, let's take a time-out on some of the political games, focus our attention for at least this year and then we can start running for something next year," he said. "And that hasn't happened as much as I would have liked."
Asked about abortion, Obama made clear that he does not intend to push Congress to pass the Freedom of Choice Act, which would eliminate state and local restrictions on abortion. Some students at the University of Notre Dame are protesting his selection as their commencement speaker because of his support for abortion rights, and he explained his thinking on the issue last night.
"I think there are some who suggest that this is simply an issue about women's freedom and that there's no other considerations," he said. "I think, look, this is an issue that people have to wrestle with and families and individual women have to wrestle with."
He continued: "The reason I'm pro-choice is because I don't think women take that -- that position casually. I think that they struggle with these decisions each and every day. And I think they are in a better position to make these decisions ultimately than members of Congress or a president of the United States, in consultation with their families, with their doctors, with their clergy."
Obama said he is optimistic about the future of the U.S. auto industry, a month after he rejected the restructuring plans of Chrysler and General Motors as inadequate to justify more government money. He said he is "more hopeful than I was 30 days ago that we can see a resolution that maintains a viable Chrysler auto company out there" after merging with the Italian automaker Fiat, a deal that seems likely to go through.
Asked what he intends to do as the chief shareholder of some of largest U.S. companies, Obama insisted playfully that he has no desire to run anything other than the country.
"I've got two wars I've got to run already," he said. "I've got more than enough to do. So the sooner we can get out of that business, the better off we're going to be."
Obama also used the opportunity to counter criticism that he is intent on using the economic crisis to expand government authority deep into the private sector and preserve it over the long term. "I'm always amused when I hear these, you know, criticisms of, 'Oh, you know, Obama wants to grow government,' " he said. "No. I would love a nice, lean portfolio to deal with, but that's not the hand that's been dealt us."
Fletcher reported from Arnold, Mo.