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President Obama speaks about recovery efforts in Haiti from the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House on Thursday, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates (from left), Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton look on. Obama has pledged an initial relief investment of $100 million for Haiti.
President Obama speaks about recovery efforts in Haiti from the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House on Thursday, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates (from left), Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton look on. Obama has pledged an initial relief investment of $100 million for Haiti. Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images
President Obama has spent much of his political capital on health care during his first year in office. He's also had to wrestle with the worst economic crisis in a generation and cope with the occasional natural disaster. Those threads came together last Thursday, the 360th workday of the Obama administration.
Flanked by his secretaries of defense and state, Obama told reporters in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room that the early reports from Haiti were "nothing less than devastating."
This was a moment that called out for American leadership, he said. It was also a chance for the president to show his own leadership as commander- and comforter-in-chief.
"To the people of Haiti, we say clearly and with conviction, you will not be forsaken; you will not be forgotten."
It was perhaps the least controversial moment in Obama's day. Less than two hours later, he was back in front of the microphones, this time with the Treasury secretary at his side.
"We want our money back," Obama said, announcing plans for a new tax on the nation's biggest banks.
In a populist tone he rarely uses, Obama said he's determined to recover from banks some $90 billion that was spent on the government's bailout effort.
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President Obama speaks about the financial crisis responsibility fee in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House on Jan. 14. Obama proposed that Wall Street banks pay taxpayers up $117 billion for the bailout they received during the financial crisis.
President Obama speaks about the financial crisis responsibility fee in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House on Jan. 14. Obama proposed that Wall Street banks pay taxpayers up $117 billion for the bailout they received during the financial crisis. Ron Sachs/Getty Images
"If these companies are in good enough shape to afford massive bonuses, they are surely in good enough shape to afford paying back every penny to taxpayers."
Unlike the Haitian relief effort, the proposed bank tax is just a proposal. It would have to clear Congress and a phalanx of bank lobbyists in order to take effect.
While the president was in the spotlight making his pitch, aides were working behind the scenes on another legislative priority — health care — and using just the kind of backroom bargaining tactics that Obama promised during the presidential campaign to avoid.
Labor unions dropped their opposition to a tax on so-called Cadillac health insurance policies, after closed-door negotiations produced concessions designed to shield middle-class workers.
"We will endorse it, and we'll do that proudly," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka of the Cadillac compromise. The deal was announced just as Obama headed to Capitol Hill for a pre-arranged meeting with House Democrats.
"I know that some of the fights we've been going through have been tough," Obama told them. "I know that some of you have gotten beaten up at home."
The big Democratic majority in the House has given Obama most of what he wanted this past year: a big stimulus program, energy legislation and a health care bill. But nervous Democrats worry they'll pay a price for those votes in November. Obama tried to reassure the restless members of his party that if they hang together, they won't get hung out to dry.
"Some of the fights that we're going to go through this year are going to be tough as well," he said. "But just remember why each of us got into public service in the first place — we found something that was worth fighting for."
The president, who began his career as a community organizer, now finds himself trying to hold many different communities together. One moment he's directing an international response to an epic earthquake. The next, he's trying to bridge fault lines in his own party.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi witnessed the juggling act this past week. She told House Democrats how Obama spearheaded marathon health care negotiations, while periodically ducking out of the room to consult a military adviser or talk with a foreign leader about Haiti.
"We saw leadership. We saw compassion. We saw American values," Pelosi said. "We saw President Barack Obama."
Obama didn't have much time to savor the applause that followed. A few hours later, he was back at the White House for another round of health care talks. His workday finally ended just before 1 a.m.