President Stresses Unity On Economic Plan

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Thousands of new layoffs greeted President Obama in his first few days in office. And while on some difficult issues he can sign executive orders demanding change, on the economy, the president is as much cheerleader in chief as he is commander.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. In this first part of the program, we're going to hear from Bill Gates about the state of his foundation, and about complications with President Obama's strict new ethics rules.

SIEGEL: First, to the president's efforts to build a bipartisan support for a massive economic stimulus package. Mr. Obama met today with lawmakers from both parties. Some Republicans have voiced concern about the size and the shape of the stimulus. They want less government spending and more tax cuts. After the meeting, both sides said they expect to have a bill ready for the president's signature by mid-February. And joining us now from the White House is NPR's Scott Horsley. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Tell us about the meeting first.

HORSLEY: This was called a working meeting. The president said he wanted to hear lawmakers' ideas for the stimulus - including those Republicans who've complained about being left out of the drafting process. The GOP lawmakers came armed with their own suggestions for boosting the economy, mostly in the shape of tax cuts. And the president acknowledged at the top of the meeting, but tried to downplay, the differences around the table, saying were united in their commitment to getting something done quickly. After the meeting, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she expects to see more bipartisanship, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said he does expect to see a bill passed by that self-imposed deadline of the President's Day weekend.

SIEGEL: Mr. Obama also said today that the stimulus package is just one of several measures that'll be needed to prop up the economy and the financial system. What else is he talking about there?

HORSLEY: That's right. He's been monitoring the economic news, and it's not been good. We had another bad report on initial unemployment claims this week and a sharp drop in housing starts. So besides pumping money into the economy to try to create jobs, the government also plans to funnel more money into the financial system to try to unstick those clogged credit markets. And the president expressed frustration today with reports that some of the companies that got taxpayer money from the first half of that $700 billion financial rescue plan were spending money on things like office renovation. So he wants to make sure the second half of that rescue money is spent very differently. And finally, he wants changes in the way the financial system is regulated so that we don't find ourselves in this situation again.

SIEGEL: Now, I wonder. Are there any things that the president can do to deal with the economy that are comparable to the kind of executive orders he can issue in other matters like dealing with detainees, say, or policy on birth- control projects?

HORSLEY: Yeah, it's a good point. You know, the government is obviously much more directly involved in the economy than it used to be, but this is not like closing the prison at Guantanamo. With a stroke of a pen, the president can close a prison, but he can't open a factory. He can't order Harley- Davidson to keep workers on the payroll. He can't even necessarily carrel the Democratic Congress to follow his ideas about the stimulus package. So he is sort of doing what he did during the campaign. He's trying to persuade lawmakers and trying to build confidence in the American people, while at the same time cautioning that the economy is likely to get worse before it gets better.

SIEGEL: I saw you ask at today's White House briefing about these new briefings that the president is getting on the economy. Tell us about that.

HORSLEY: Yes. He's asked to be briefed every day by his economic adviser Larry Summers in a way that's similar to the intelligence briefing he gets every day. Of course, the economic news, unlike the intelligence briefing, is not top secret. He could probably learn the same thing just by looking at the front of the business section. This is, in some ways, just a symbolic way to let the American people know that the president is on top of the economic news, and this is an important part of his day.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: It's NPR's Scott Horsley, speaking to us from the White House.

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