Obama Touts Polices, Concedes Economy Still Hurting

In a rare White House press conference Friday, President Barack Obama said the economy is showing improvement but conceded progress has been "painfully slow."

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President Barack Obama used a White House news conference today to defend his economic policies. With less than two months to go before the fall elections, voter support for those policies has slumped, and Democrats are scrambling to prevent a Republican surge come November.

Today's news conference is part of a concerted push by the White House to argue the president's efforts are helping the economy, though not as fast as anyone would like.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama opened his news conference by drawing a sharp distinction between the economic agenda he's pursued since taking office and the policies of the previous decade. He said his agenda is designed to help the middle class with targeted tax cuts and investments in education and clean energy. But with eight million jobs lost during the recession, he acknowledged there's a huge hole to dig out of.

President BARACK OBAMA: For all the progress we've made, we're not there yet. And that means the people are frustrated, and that means people are angry. And since I'm the president and Democrats have control of the House and the Senate, it's understandable that people are saying, you know, what have you done?

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama accused Senate Republicans of blocking his initiatives, even when he's pushing traditionally Republican ideas, such as tax cuts for businesses. One Republican, Ohio Senator George Voinovich, is breaking with his party to support the president's small business initiative.

Still, if the Democrats were facing big losses in November, Mr. Obama held campaign-style events this week in Wisconsin and Ohio to argue the midterm should not be a thumbs up or down on where the economy is, but rather a choice about which way it's heading.

Pres. OBAMA: Between now and November, what I'm going to remind the American people of is that the policies that we have put in place have move us in the right direction. And the policies that the Republicans are offering right now are the exact policies that got us into this mess.

HORSLEY: The partisan debate will also play out in Congress, where lawmakers must decide whether to extend some or all of the Bush-era tax cuts, which are due to expire this year. President Obama wants to make the cuts permanent for families making less than a quarter million dollars, while letting taxes on wealthier families climb back to where they were in the '90s. He says Republicans are holding out for an extension of all the tax cuts.

Pres. OBAMA: And what I've got is the Republicans holding middle-class tax relief hostage because they're insisting we've got to give tax relief to millionaires and billionaires to the tune of about $100,000 per millionaire.

HORSLEY: Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said, after the president's news conference, he's disappointed that Mr. Obama still wants to raise taxes on those making more than a quarter million dollars a year. Republicans argue some in that category are small business owners who could be discouraged from additional hiring.

McConnell agreed with Mr. Obama on another subject, though, the need to dismantle al-Qaeda and prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a base to launch attacks on the U.S.

Mr. Obama echoed former President Bush in stressing that America's fight against al-Qaeda is not a fight against Muslims. He made a passionate case for religious tolerance, including the proposed mosque near the World Trade Center site. And he noted there are Muslims service members in Iraq and Afghanistan wearing the uniform of the United States.

Pres. OBAMA: They're out there putting their lives on the line for us, and we've got to make sure that we are crystal clear for our sakes and their sakes, they are Americans. And we honor their service. And part of honoring their service is making sure that they understand that we don't differentiate between them and us. It's just us.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama concluded by saying tomorrow's anniversary of the September 11th attacks is a good time to reflect on that.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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