Obama Denounces Violence On Iran's Streets

President Obama i i

During his midday news conference Tuesday, President Obama used his strongest language to date to denounce the Iranian government's violence against election protesters. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan/Getty Images
President Obama

During his midday news conference Tuesday, President Obama used his strongest language to date to denounce the Iranian government's violence against election protesters.

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

From The White House

President Obama on Tuesday used his strongest language to date to denounce the Iranian government's violence against election protesters, condemning the deadly crackdown and expressing outrage at "threats, beatings and imprisonments."

But, during a televised news conference, the president stopped short of suggesting any formal action against the country.

"We don't know yet how this thing is going to play out," he told reporters who had packed the White House briefing room for a session dominated by Iran and the president's stalled health care overhaul plan.

"I know everyone here is on a 24-hour news cycle," the president said dryly. "I'm not."

'I'm The President'

Obama also pushed back hard against Republican critics like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who have castigated the White House for what they have characterized as a timid response to the violence against demonstrators questioning President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election.

"I think John McCain has genuine passion about many of these international issues," Obama said. "But only I'm the president of the United States.

"And I've got responsibilities in making certain that we are continually advancing our national security interests and that we are not used as a tool to be exploited by other countries," he said.

The president, whose comments came in response to sharp questioning about his response to the violence in Iran, noted that statements he's made have been "mistranslated" to suggest that he's encouraging rioters.

He said that government officials in Iran have also suggested that the CIA had a hand in organizing protests — among accusations he characterized as "patently false and absurd."

"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," Obama said.

He defended what he called the consistency of his response and attempted to explain the fine line the administration has been walking since election protests erupted: responding to the violence, but maintaining a "path" for Iran's engagement in the larger international community.

"But we also must bear witness to the courage and dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society," he said. "We deplore the violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place."

When asked if he had seen a widely disseminated video showing the death of an Iranian woman demonstrator who had been shot in the chest, the president said he had.

"It's heartbreaking. It's — it's heartbreaking," Obama said. "And I think that anybody who sees it knows that there's something fundamentally unjust about that."

However, he again stepped back from directly questioning the results of Iran's election.

"We didn't have international observers on the ground," he said. "We can't say definitively what exactly happened at polling places throughout the country."

Tinkering Won't Work

The president's appearance before the White House press corps also kicked off a week of his health care hard sell and his full-court press to bolster the stalled fortunes of his overhaul plan.

"There's some notion that if we stand pat, we're OK," he said. "That's just not true."

But, when pressed about whether he would insist that any overhaul include a public insurance plan, the president demurred.

"We are still early in the process," he said. "We have not drawn lines in the sand other than reform has to control costs" and provide relief for those without insurance or who are underinsured.

He attempted to humanize the issue by referring to a Wisconsin woman he recently met who, despite her husband's insurance, is still $50,000 in debt after a double mastectomy to treat her breast cancer.

The president, as he has done repeatedly in the past, characterized a health care overhaul as an economic imperative: The current system, he said, is not only burdening families and businesses, but is the "primary driver of our federal deficit." And to solve that will require more than "tinkering around the edges."

The Big Cost Question

But the administration was knocked on its heels last week when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the government cost for health care plans now under consideration in the Senate would top $1 trillion.

And Tuesday morning, large insurers told Congress that the president's plan to offer a government-managed — and perhaps subsidized — public insurance option would put them out of business.

When asked about the claim that insurers would not be able to compete with a public insurance option, Obama said their argument "defies logic."

"If insurers are doing their job," he said, "they should be able to compete."

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 76 percent of those surveyed said it was "extremely" or "quite" important that people have a public insurance option. But only 33 percent of those surveyed said that the president's plan was a good idea, from what they knew of it. Thirty-two percent said it was a bad idea, and 30 percent had no opinion.

The administration and its surrogates see opportunity in those numbers. The Democratic National Committee, in concert with the White House, on Tuesday announced the launch of a Web site stocked with "genuine health care stories" that it says underscore the need for a comprehensive overhaul.

"I'm very optimistic about the progress" Congress is making on the overhaul, Obama said, an effort that "must and will be paid for" through "savings and efficiencies within the health care system."

Energy, Economy And Cigarettes

The House is scheduled to vote late this week on a controversial climate change bill; opponents have raised concerns about the costs of moving to cleaner energy, but some environmentalists say compromises on the bill have stripped out key elements they support. The president on Tuesday made a strong pitch for its passage, characterizing it as a historic bill that will "spark a clean energy transformation that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil."

He also defended the stimulus package that has been losing support with the public as the nation's job situation continues a bleak path. The president acknowledged that unemployment will hit 10 percent despite earlier administration assertions that the level would remain below 8 percent.

"In the absence of the stimulus, I think our recession would be much worse," he said.

"Without the Recovery Act, we know for a fact that states, for example, would have laid off a lot more teachers, a lot more police officers and a lot more firefighters," he said.

The American people, Obama said, "have a right to feel like this is a tough time now."

Speaking of tough times, the president bristled when asked about his occasional smoking habit — a day after he signed a tobacco regulation bill.

"I think it's fair to just say that you just think it's neat to ask me about my smoking as opposed to it being relevant to my new law," he said.

"But that's fine. I understand. It's an interesting human interest story," the president said, acknowledging that he struggles with the habit, has "fallen off the wagon," but is "95 percent cured."

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