Obama to Congress: Don’t play political games
AP White House Correspondent
By JENNIFER LOVEN
AP White House Correspondent
WASHINGTON ” President Barack Obama, urgently pressuring lawmakers to approve a massive economic recovery bill, turned his first news conference Monday night into a determined defense of his emergency plan and an offensive against Republicans who try to “play the usual political games.”
He said the recession has left the nation so weak that only the federal government can “jolt our economy back to life.” And he declared that failure to act swiftly and boldly “could turn a crisis into a catastrophe.”
“The party now is over,” he said.
Speedy passage of legislation to pump federal money into the crippled economy, once seemingly assured with bipartisan support, has become a much heavier lift and a major test of Obama’s young presidency. With more than 11 million Americans now out of work, Obama defended his program against Republican criticism that it is too big, loaded with pork-barrel spending and won’t create jobs.
“The plan is not perfect,” the president said. “No plan is. I can’t tell you for sure that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hope, but I can tell you with complete confidence that a failure to act will only deepen this crisis as well as the pain felt by millions of Americans.”
Obama said the country could well be in better shape by next year, as measured by increased hiring, lending, home values and other factors. “If we get things right, then, starting next year, we can start seeing significant improvement,” Obama said.
On the day that an $838 billion version of the stimulus legislation cleared a crucial test vote in the Senate, Obama warned darkly of what he said would be the consequences of inaction, addressing the nation from the East Room of the White House in a prime-time news conference that lasted almost exactly one hour.
“This is not your ordinary, run of the mill recession,” he said. Obama said the United States could tumble into the kind of economic pain that Japan endured in the 1990s ” the “lost decade” when that nation showed no economic growth.
He hit repeatedly at the themes he has emphasized in recent weeks, including at a town hall meeting earlier in the day in recession-battered Elkhart, Ind., where layoffs in its mainstay recreational vehicle industry has sent unemployment above 15 percent.
It’s a time-honored presidential strategy: talking to voters to get lawmakers to listen.
Originally, aides had insisted that Obama’s time would be better spent remaining in Washington to shepherd the stimulus bill. But as difficulties with the legislation grew, aides scheduled the Monday trip and news conference, as well as other travel to hard-luck communities. Obama is traveling on Tuesday to Fort Myers, Fla., and on Thursday to Peoria, Ill.
He seemed cool and unruffled as he fielded 13 questions before a nationwide audience of millions. He ducked several questions, for example refusing to say if his administration would alter the Bush administration’s policy of refusing to allow photographs of flag-draped coffins of America’s war dead.
He also refused to say how long U.S. troops would be in Afghanistan after his planned troop buildup there. And he refused to reveal details of new rules governing the bailout of financial firms, set to be announced Tuesday by his Treasury secretary.
Obama defended his efforts at bipartisanship, despite the precious few concrete results so far. Not a single House Republican voted for the legislation last month, and only three GOP senators supported it on Monday. Obama noted he had put Republican tax cuts into the plan and kept them there, negotiated with GOP lawmakers individually and as a group, and even put three Republicans in his Cabinet.
“All those were not designed simply to get some short-term votes. They were designed to try to build up some trust over time,” he said. “And I think that, as I continue to make these overtures, over time, hopefully that will be reciprocated.”
But the talk of mending the partisan divide only went so far. Obama took Republicans to task for carping about the bill.
“It’s a little hard for me to take criticism from folks about this recovery package after they’ve presided over a doubling of the national debt,” the president said. “I’m not sure they have a lot of credibility when it comes to fiscal responsibility.”
“You get a feeling that maybe we’re playing politics instead of actually trying to solve problems for the American people,” Obama said.
The Gallup Organization released a poll Monday showing Obama’s approval rating holding steady at 67 percent, with Congress much less popular. Republicans in Congress drew only 31 percent approval, and Democrats had 48 percent. The poll also showed that 80 percent think it’s either important or critically important that a stimulus plan be approved.
The White House is calculating that such numbers, along with Obama’s daily drumbeat, will help him win the day as the stimulus legislation moves forward.
The Senate was expected to pass it on Tuesday. Then it must be reconciled with a $820 billion House bill in negotiations expected to be difficult.
While Obama focused on the economy in the opening minutes of the news conference, he also faced questions on foreign policy.
He said his administration would look for opportunities “in the coming months” for direct talks with Iran, a nation accused by the United States of supporting terrorism and pursuing nuclear weapons.
Ticking off a myriad of concerns about Iran’s support for terrorist groups, its nuclear weapons program and its anti-Israel stance, Obama said Iran must send conciliatory signals as the U.S. is. But he also acknowledged distrust on both sides of the relationship. “There’s the possibility at least for a relationship of mutual respect and progress,” he said.
He also said that signing condolence letters to the families of fallen American soldiers made his new job real like no other task. “It reminds you of the responsibilities that you carry in this office and ” and the consequences of the decisions that you make,” Obama said.
– Called Alex Rodriguez’s admission that he used steroids “depressing news” that tarnishes an entire era of Major League baseball. The All-Star third baseman with the New York Yankees told ESPN on Monday he used banned substances while playing with the Texas Rangers from 2001-03.
– Suggested it was unlikely his administration would seek to prosecute anyone involved in harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects.
– Said Pakistan has not provided “the kind of concerted effort to root out those safe havens” used by al-Qaida in its lawless, mountainous border region near Afghanistan.
By CALVIN WOODWARD
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) ” At least Route 31 is a road to somewhere.
President Barack Obama had it both ways Monday when he promoted his stimulus plan in Indiana and later at a prime-time news conference. He bragged in Indiana about getting Congress to produce a package with no pork, yet boasted it will do good things for a Hoosier highway and a downtown overpass, just the kind of local projects lawmakers lard into big spending bills.
Obama’s sales pitch on the enormous package he wants Congress to make law has sizzle as well as steak. He’s projecting job creation numbers that may be impossible to verify and glossing over some ethical problems that bedeviled his team.
In recent years, the so-called Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska came to symbolize the worst excesses of congressional earmarks, a device that allows a member of Congress to add money for local projects in legislation, practically under the radar.
Nothing so bold, or specific, as that now-discarded bridge project is contained in the stimulus package. That’s not to say the package steers clear of waste or parochial interests. Obama played to such interests Monday, speaking at one point as if he’d come to fill potholes.
A look at some of Obama’s claims in Elkhart, Ind., and the news conference called to make his case to the largest possible audience:
OBAMA: “Not a single pet project,” he told the news conference. “Not a single earmark.”
He said in Elkhart: “Understand, this bill does not have a single earmark in it, which is unprecedented for a bill of this size. … There aren’t individual pork projects that members of Congress are putting into this bill.”
THE FACTS: There are no “earmarks,” as they are usually defined, inserted by lawmakers in the bill. Still, some of the projects bear the prime characteristics of pork ” tailored to benefit specific interests or to have thinly disguised links to local projects.
For example, the latest version contains $2 billion for a clean-coal power plant with specifications matching one in Mattoon, Ill., $10 million for urban canals, $2 billion for manufacturing advanced batteries for hybrid cars, and $255 million for a polar icebreaker and other “priority procurements” by the Coast Guard.
Obama told his Elkhart audience that Indiana will benefit from work on “roads like U.S. 31 here in Indiana that Hoosiers count on.” He added: “And I know that a new overpass downtown would make a big difference for businesses and families right here in Elkhart.”
U.S. 31 is a north-south highway serving South Bend, 15 miles from Elkhart in the northern part of the state.
OBAMA: “My bottom line is, are we creating 4 million jobs?” he told the news conference.
He said in Indiana: “The plan that we’ve put forward will save or create 3 million to 4 million jobs over the next two years.”
THE FACTS: Job creation projections are uncertain even in stable times, and some of the economists relied on by Obama in making his forecast acknowledge a great deal of uncertainty in their numbers.
Beyond that, it’s unlikely the nation will ever know how many jobs are saved as a result of the stimulus. While it’s clear when jobs are abolished, there’s no economic gauge that tracks job preservation.
The president’s own economists, in a report prepared last month, stated: “It should be understood that that all of the estimates presented in this memo are subject to significant margins of error … the uncertainty is surely higher than normal now because the current recession is unusual in its fundamental causes and its severity.”
OBAMA: “Most economists, almost unanimously, recognize that even if philosophically you’re wary of government intervening in the economy, when you have the kind of problem you have right now … government is an important element of introducing some additional demand into the economy.”
FACT: True, economists believe government should act. But while many believe government spending is the answer, there is hardly unanimity on what to do, and Obama may have overstated conservative support.
In a recent newspaper ad, 300 economists signed up against the stimulus promoted by the president. “Lower tax rates and a reduction in the burden of government are the best ways of using fiscal policy to boost growth,” they wrote.
Martin Feldstein, a conservative economist at Harvard University and president emeritus of the National Bureau of Economic Research, has advocated a stimulus package in the past, but he argued recently that the package before Congress “delivers too little extra employment and income for such a large fiscal deficit.”
OBAMA: “They’ll be jobs building the wind turbines and solar panels and fuel-efficient cars that will lower our dependence on foreign oil and modernizing our costly health care system that will save us billions of dollars and countless lives.”
THE FACTS: The economic stimulus bill would allocate about $20 billion to help hospitals and doctors transition from paper charts to electronic health records for their patients. Research has shown that in some instances, electronic record keeping can eliminate inappropriate services and improve care, but it’s not a sure thing by any means. “By itself, the adoption of more health IT is generally not sufficient to produce significant cost savings,” the Congressional Budget Office reported last year.
OBAMA: “I’ve appointed hundreds of people, all of whom are outstanding Americans who are doing a great job. There are a couple who had problems before they came into my administration, in terms of their taxes. … I made a mistake … I don’t want to send the signal that there are two sets of rules.”
He added: “Everybody will acknowledge that we have set up the highest standard ever for lobbyists not working in the administration.”
THE FACTS: Two of his appointees, former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle for secretary of health and human services and Nancy Killefer as his chief compliance officer, dropped out after reports they had not paid a portion of their taxes.
Obama previously acknowledged he “screwed up” in making it seem to Americans that there is one set of tax compliance rules for VIPs and another set for everyone else. Yet his choice for treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, achieved the post despite having belatedly paid $34,000 to the IRS, an agency Geithner now oversees.
That could leave the perception that there is one set of rules for Geithner and another set for everyone else.
On lobbyists, Obama has in fact established tough new rules barring them from working for his administration. But the ban is not absolute.
William J. Lynn III, tapped to be the No. 2 official at the Defense Department, recently lobbied for military contractor Raytheon. William Corr, chosen as deputy secretary at Health and Human Services, has lobbied as an anti-tobacco advocate. And Geithner’s choice for chief of staff, Mark Patterson, is an ex-lobbyist from Goldman Sachs.
OBAMA: “We also inherited the most profound economic emergency since the Great Depression.”
THE FACTS. This could turn out to be the case. But as bad as the economic numbers are, the unemployment figures have not reached the levels of the early 1980s, let alone the 1930s ” yet. A total of 598,000 payroll jobs vanished in January ” the most in nearly 35 years ” and the unemployment rate jumped to 7.6 from 7.2 percent the month before. The most recent high was 7.8 percent in June 1992.
And the jobless rate was 10.8 percent in November and December 1982. Unemployment in the Great Depression ranged for several year from 25 percent to close to 30 percent.
OBAMA: Iran’s “financing of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, the bellicose language that they’ve used towards Israel, their development of a nuclear weapon or their pursuit of a nuclear weapon,” are contrary to regional stability and peace.
THE FACTS: There is no proof Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon. The U.S. and numerous allies have long claimed that Iran’s accelerated nuclear research and development program could be misused to develop weapons, and the Bush administration sometimes accused the Islamic government of duplicity. The U.N. nuclear watchdog has also cast strong doubt on the true nature of Iran’s nuclear program and faulted Tehran for keeping secrets. For all the suspicions, Iran’s claims that its nuclear program is peaceful and intended only to produce electrical power have not all been refuted.