By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010; 3:42 PM
BUFFALO -- President Obama had a simple message Thursday for the Republicans who have tried to thwart his economic policies.
I told you so.
In a defense of the often unpopular actions his administration has taken to confront the economic crisis, Obama told employees of an expanding manufacturing company here that he was right and his critics were wrong.
"Today, we are heading in the right direction," Obama said. "Those tough steps we took -- they're working. Despite all the naysayers -- who were predicting failure a year ago -- our economy is growing again."
Standing in front of heavy equipment in a manufacturing bay at a company that has added workers, Obama said his critics should have to admit that the steps he took -- and they opposed -- ended the recession and have begun to add jobs, if slowly.
"I knew that if we didn't act boldly and quickly -- if we didn't defy the politics of the moment and do what was necessary -- we would have risked an even greater disaster," he said, calling out the Republican Party as having been "in power when the crisis happened."
The response from Republicans was swift. They pointed out that White House officials had predicted an unemployment rate of 7.7 percent by now when they were arguing for the president's stimulus package. And they pointed to polls suggesting that the public still does not believe the recovery act has helped them much.
"Last year, the administration rushed a trillion-dollar stimulus bill through Congress because it said we needed it to create jobs," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. "Well, more than a year later unemployment is hovering around 10 percent. And taxpayers want their money back."
Obama's trip to Buffalo highlights one of the central dilemmas for any president presiding over a slow economic recovery: how to balance the good news and the bad news, the continuing misery and the hopeful signs.
Just days ago, Obama stood in the Rose Garden at the White House to tout the best job numbers in years -- almost 300,000 jobs created in a single month. Flanked by his economic team, the president used the opportunity to remind Americans how far the country had come since the recession began.
"At the height of the downturn, around the time that I took office, we were losing an average of 750,000 jobs per month," Obama told the people watching his announcement last Friday morning.
But as he has done every time there is good news, the president quickly made a pivot, acknowledging the frustration undoubtedly felt by the unemployed every time they hear that the economy is improving and that the recession is over.
"Economic statistics don't do justice to the pain and anxiety that results from unemployment," Obama said. "Lasting unemployment takes a toll on families, takes a toll on marriages, takes a toll on children." The boost in jobs, he added, "offers obviously little comfort to those who are still out of work."
In Upstate New York, Obama faced the same delicate challenge.
A Marist College poll conducted on the eve of Obama's visit says that 57 percent of Upstate New Yorkers believe that the economy in their region is getting worse. And just 11 percent say it is improving.
An indication of the anxieties was printed in larger-than-life words on a billboard in downtown Buffalo. "Dear Mr. President, I need a freakin job. Period," the billboard says. It was part of a local campaign organized by local businessman Jeff Baker, who lost his job last year.
For a post-recession president, the most damning critique might be to be seen as out of touch with that kind of sentiment. Ever since the first president Bush was successfully characterized as disconnected from the reality of the economic pain in the early 1990s, no White House team has disregarded that danger.
As he has done repeatedly on his Main Street tour this year, Obama said the administration's economic policies -- including the stimulus act and the jobs measures -- have allowed the county to emerge from an economic crisis that threatened to morph into a depression as he took office.
After a tour, Obama took a few questions from employees at the factory. Obama seemed most amused when an employee asked what he thought about comments by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that the Obama health-care plan was the "Europeanization of America."
The president called that a "reporter's question. This is a budding reporter," he said to the audience before launching into an explanation of the various aspects of the health-care law so that the audience could make up its own mind "instead of slapping labels."
Before arriving at the company, Obama stopped for a bite to eat at Duff's Famous Wings in Cheektowaga, N.Y. Dozens of onlookers watched outside while he went inside, and -- in an unusual moment -- one woman greeted him by saying, "You're a hottie with a smokin' little body."
Obama also met privately at the airport with family members of those killed in the February 2009 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407. Deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton characterized it as a "brief meeting where the president is looking to extend his condolences."
The trip to Buffalo is a quick one; Obama is scheduled to be on the ground for barely three hours. Afterward, he heads to New York City for a fundraiser before flying home late Thursday night.