President Obama used his first White House news conference Monday night to personalize the dire state of the nation's economy, leveraging his popularity and the power of his office to urge Congress and the country to get behind his stimulus package.
Despite his effort to get bipartisan support for his massive economic plan, the rewards have been meager: zero Republican votes in the House and three in the Senate. But Obama pledged to continue to try to "build up some trust over time."
"We find ourselves in a rare moment where the citizens of our country and all countries are watching and waiting for us to lead," Obama said during his prime-time appearance. "It is a responsibility that this generation did not ask for, but one that we must accept for the sake of our future and our children's."
In his hourlong televised appearance, the president touched on a range of issues, from the war in Afghanistan to steroid use in Major League Baseball. But the bulk of his time was spent laying out the nation's economic challenges and his legislative prescription.
Fresh from a town-hall style meeting earlier Monday in Elkhart, Ind., Obama frequently highlighted the economic devastation in that community to illustrate how working-class America has been affected by the crisis. Elkhart's unemployment rate has gone from 4.7 percent to 15.3 percent in a year, and the town has lost jobs faster than "anywhere else in America," he said.
"Local TV stations have started running public service announcements that tell people where to find food banks, even as the food banks don't have enough to meet the demand," Obama said. "As we speak, similar scenes are playing out in cities and towns across the country." He pointed to the loss of 598,000 jobs nationally last month, saying it was "nearly the equivalent of losing every single job in the state of Maine."
Asked whether his language about the economy has been too dire, Obama responded: "What I'm trying to underscore is what the people in Elkhart already understand — this is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill recession."
In discourses that ate up much of the hourlong give-and-take with the media, the president stoutly defended his plan, saying the price tag of more than $800 billion wasn't "plucked out of a hat."
Obama said there are three benchmarks by which the American public can assess whether the stimulus package is working.
"My initial measure of success will be creating or saving 4 million jobs," he said, followed by a stabilization of the credit market and then the housing market. "If we get things right, then starting next year, we can start seeing some significant improvement."
Obama On The Challenges Of Iran, Afghanistan
On foreign policy, Obama said his administration is looking for a way to open up diplomatic lines with Iran, despite the fact that the country has been "unhelpful in promoting peace and prosperity in the region and around the world."
"In the coming months, we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table in face-to-face, diplomatic overtures that will allow us to move our policy in a new direction," Obama said. While acknowledging the sense of mistrust between the two countries, the president said, "There's a possibility of a relationship of mutual respect and progress."
He pointed to an interview he gave with Arab broadcaster Al Arabiya and his naming of former Sen. George Mitchell as a special Middle East envoy as evidence that his administration plans to "do things differently in the region."
In regard to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Obama said, "We are going to need more effective coordination with diplomatic efforts, development efforts, more effective coordination with our allies."
The president said the U.S. is going to have to work "smartly and effectively" in a country where political order has been elusive. "My bottom line is that we cannot allow al-Qaida to operate. We cannot have those safe havens in that region," Obama said, adding, "I'm not going to allow al-Qaida or bin Laden to operate with impunity, planning attacks on the U.S. homeland."
When pressed on whether he agreed with a proposal by Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont to set up a commission to investigate "misdeeds" of the Bush administration, Obama said he wasn't familiar with the proposal. "Nobody is above the law," Obama said, "and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, then people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen. But ... I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards."
In response to a question about New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez's admission that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, Obama responded that he found the news "depressing."
"It tarnishes an entire era, to a certain degree," the president said, noting that he believed Major League Baseball is taking the drug problem seriously. "Our kids are hopefully watching and saying, 'You know, there's no shortcuts.'"
Addressing Republican Critics
During his appearance, Obama sought to project an image of a president determined to address the economic crisis, and to silence Republican critics who have made the political calculation that opposing his stimulus plan en masse will ultimately be a winning position.
The president addressed those critics directly: "If there's anyone out there who still doesn't believe this constitutes a full-blown crisis, I suggest speaking to one of the millions of Americans out there now who don't know where their next paycheck is coming from."
The government, Obama said, is the only entity able to stem job losses and create some stability in the flailing economy. And the plan Congress is preparing to deliver must be "big enough and bold enough to meet the size of the economic challenge we face right now," he added.
With the Senate poised to pass its version of the stimulus package Tuesday after a crucial test vote Monday afternoon, both parties joined the president in lobbying the public with renewed zeal.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky accused Obama and congressional Democrats of deceiving the public by rolling out separate high-dollar spending plans for the stimulus and the bank and housing bailouts. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California issued a press release highlighting Republican House leaders' "no" votes on initiatives ranging from expanding children's health care, to reforming the bailout programs.
"There is no time to delay," Pelosi said, echoing the president.
To underscore the importance the administration has placed on bolstering public support for the nearly trillion dollar spending-and-tax-cut stimulus plan, the president plans to continue to hold campaign-like stops in areas hardest hit by the historic downturn.
On Tuesday, the president is scheduled to travel to Fort Myers, Fla., which has been hammered by the housing crisis. The state's Republican governor, Charlie Crist, has said he will introduce the president in a show of bipartisanship that has largely failed to materialize in Washington.
Leaders from the two chambers are expected to begin meeting to meld the two bills immediately after the Senate vote on Tuesday. Both the Senate and the House will have to approve the compromise measure before it hits the president's desk.
Also Tuesday, the administration is expected to reveal a spending plan for the ongoing bailout of the nation's banks. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is expected to detail how the second half of the controversial TARP money — some $350 billion — will be distributed.
The administration on Monday touted a new Gallup Poll that found that 76 percent of those surveyed approved of how the president is handling his job. Sixty percent approved of how Democrats on Capitol Hill are performing, compared with a 44 percent approval rating for Republicans.
But just 54 percent say they support the economic stimulus, according to the poll, and the 45 percent who oppose it were the likely target of Obama's message.
As Monday's press conference drew to a close, Obama was again asked about the partisanship that has marked debate on the stimulus and how he could expect that might ever change.
"I am the eternal optimist," the president said, echoing his earlier comments about not giving up on changing the tone in the nation's capital.
It's something that, he suggested, the American public just might appreciate at this moment in history.