Obama's Economic Team Cautious, But Optimistic

White House officials hit the Sunday news shows with force, hoping to convince Americans that the economy is beginning to improve due largely to the controversial economic stimulus package. But they admit that a boost won't come without a huge federal deficit.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

White House officials were out in force yesterday, hoping to convince Americans that the economy is beginning to improve. But they acknowledged that they will also have to deal with a huge federal deficit, and that may take something that President Obama has promised he would not do.

Joining us now for some analysis is NPR's Cokie Roberts. Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: The Obama administration's economic team - they were everywhere yesterday.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Presumably, that was no accident. What did they want to tell us?

ROBERTS: Well, as you know, any administration uses the Sunday talk shows to get out the message, so even if you want to be talking about education or foreign policy or whatever on your program, the White House won't let. The secretary of education or the secretary of state appear if the president wants his team talking about something else. And yesterday, clearly, they wanted to talk about the economy. The entire economic team was out over the airwaves, saying that things are turning around, trying to take some credit for that. But they were walking in an interesting fine line, because they know lots of people are out of work, more people are likely to be out of work, and the administration doesn't want to look insensitive to those people. So it was sympathetic, saying unemployment benefits might be extended but also trying to take - to blow their horns a little bit on the economy getting better.

WERTHEIMER: Now, one sign of economic activity is that Cash For Clunkers Program, which was so successful, it ran out of money in about a week.

ROBERTS: The transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, said the Senate has to provide $2 billion more for the program to continue. The House voted that money on Friday before they went on vacation, and now the administration wants the Senate to go along. But there is some opposition in the Senate - some Republicans saying this is just subsidizing car sales that would have happened anyway. But former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said yesterday that that's not the case, that such a wide use of this program is a sign of economic pick-up, and that it wouldn't have had the same response six months ago.

WERTHEIMER: A few months ago, Alan Greenspan was very bearish on the economy. So he has changed his tune?

ROBERTS: Sounds like it, but he is still concerned about home prices and that huge federal deficit that you just talked about. And that's something we heard about from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, as well, yesterday. The Obama administration knows at some point, they're going to have to tackle this. They're going to have to deal with the big spending programs - Social Security, Medicare - but Geithner was also pressed on whether the administration is considering tax increases.

Secretary TIM GEITHNER (Department of Treasury): We can't make these judgments yet about exactly what it's going to take, and how we're going to get there. But the very important thing - and no one is going to care about this more than the president of the United States - is for people to understand that we do not have the choice as a country, that if we want an economy that is going to grow in the future, people have to understand we've to bring those deficits down.

ROBERTS: Geithner was speaking on ABC's "This Week." Now, to even hint that there might be an increase in taxes could be a political problem for the president, who repeatedly promised during the campaign not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000. We're likely to hear a good bit about Geithner's comments from the Republicans in the coming days, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that members of Congress are going to hear about deficits when they are home for the August recess? We've been thinking they would hear quite a bit about the health-care debate.

ROBERTS: Well, they're likely to hear about both. But then, they certainly are arming themselves for hearing about the health-care debate. The Democrats are going home with little cards with the talking points on it, but I think they are also going to be listening a lot. This is evolving legislation. And the administration is now talking about a glide path toward universal coverage, rather than immediate universal coverage - which, of course, is going back a little bit to what the president was talking about during the political campaign. But I think that everybody is expecting town meetings to be disrupted, to have all kinds of ads, but also to keep working on this legislation because even after the Senate goes out this week, they don't expect to finish it until at least September.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much.

ROBERTS: Thank you.

NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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