President Obama held a midday news conference today in the White House briefing room, and the questions, as expected, dealt with the situation in Iran, prospects for health care legislation, and the state of the economy.
Obama led off with a statement about Iran, where he said the U.S. and the international community
have been appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days. I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.
The president has said in the past that he has deliberately avoided making confrontational comments about what's happening in Iran in the aftermath of the disputed presidential election there because he didn't want his words to be used by the ruling clergy as proof that the U.S. is interfering in Tehran's affairs. He stressed that again today.
I have made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not interfering in Iran's affairs. But we must also bear witness to the courage and dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore the violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place.
The Iranian people are trying to have a debate about their future. Some in the Iranian government are trying to avoid that debate by accusing the United States and others outside of Iran of instigating protests over the elections. These accusations are patently false. They are an obvious attempt to distract people from what is truly taking place within Iran's borders. This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won't work anymore in Iran. This is not about the United States or the West; this is about the people of Iran, and the future that they — and only they — will choose.
The Iranian people can speak for themselves. That is precisely what has happened these last few days. In 2009, no iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to the peaceful protests of justice. Despite the Iranian government's efforts to expel journalists and isolate itself, powerful images and poignant words have made their way to us through cell phones and computers, and so we have watched what the Iranian people are doing.
His opening statement also included comments about the clean energy bill currently before the House, as well as health care, which he promised would be "paid for" and "not add to our deficits over the next decade."
But most of the reporters' questions centered around Iran. Asked under which circumstances would he accept the results of the election, Obama said we "can't say definitively what happened," and he again repeated that what does happen is "up to the Iranian people." But he said that the resulting violence aimed at protesters was unacceptable.
Major Garrett of Fox News, in response to Obama's statement that he was outraged and appalled at the violence, asked the president, essentially, "What took you so long?" Obama took issue with the the accuracy of the question, saying he and the administration had been expressing their concern about the violence from the outset. "We've been very consistent," said the president, but he said he would not let the U.S. be a "foil" for the Iranian government.
Chip Reid of CBS News pointed out that Republicans have been criticizing the president for being "timid and weak" on Iran, and he noticed that Obama's words were tougher at the news conference. "Were you influenced at all by [Sen. John] McCain and [Sen. Lindsey] Graham?" Obama gave Reid a look, smiled, and said, to ensuing laughter, "What do you think?" Obama pointed out that, as president, he had certain responsibilities to weigh in responding to Tehran's actions.
Chuck Todd of NBC News said the president had "avoided spelling out the consequences" of the violence perpetrated by the Iranian government. Obama urged caution, saying we "don't know how things will play out yet."
And asked for his reaction to the horrific video of the Iranian woman, Neda Agha Soltan, whose shooting and eventual death has been seen throughout the world, Obama called it "heartbreaking," adding that "anyone who sees it knows there is something fundamentally unjust" about what Tehran is doing.
On health care, Obama differed from the view that a government-sponsored health care would put the public's ability to choose their own health-care provider in jeopardy. He also said that when it came to health care, the "status quo" was unacceptable.
And on personal health care — and the administration's anti-smoking campaign — the president didn't seem to care for a question about his own habit, specifically, how often does he smoke. "As a former smoker, I have fallen off the wagon," the president conceded. But is he a "daily smoker?" No. Does he smoke in front of his family? No. He called himself "95 percent cured."
On the economy, Obama said that Fed chair Ben Bernanke is doing a "fine job" under "difficult circumstances." Asked if unemployment reaches double digits, as the president has said is possible, would he consider a second stimulus package, Obama said simply, "Not yet." But he insisted that had there been no first stimulus package, things would have been "much worse."