President Obama, in the first primetime press conference of his young administration, used the huge TV audience to shore up public support for his economic recovery plan.
Noting that last month, the country lost 598,000 jobs -- "nearly the equivalent of losing every single job in the state of Maine" -- he said that only government can provide an adequate response.
"It is absolutely true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or economic growth," he said in opening remarks before taking questions from reporters. "That is and must be the role of the private sector. But at this particular moment, with the private sector so weakened by this recession, the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back into life."
He framed the stimulus bill as a jobs plan, with tax cuts targeted to those who will spend the money quickly.
But he acknowledged that the plan working its way through Congress is "not perfect."
"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."
Asked whether his dire warnings might be hurting the economy, he noted that 3.6 million jobs have been lost since the recession began in December 2007 and the job loss is accelerating.
"This is not your ordinary, run of the mill recession," he said, calling it the worst since the Great Depression.
Asked how Americans should measure the success of the stimulus plan and other initiatives, Obama said the first step is whether jobs are created or saved -- he has set a goal of 3 to 4 million in two years. The second measure is whether credit is freed up for businesses and consumers. The third metric will be whether the housing market is stabilized -- foreclosure rates no longer increasing and housing values not plummeting.
That progress, he said, he hopes will be visible next year. "This year is going to be a difficult year," Obama said.
He directly addressed criticisms of the stimulus plan.
To those who oppose any government intervention, he repeated that only the federal government can break the cycle that is driving down demand for goods and services. He also said that these critics seem to be refighting the philosophical battle over the New Deal, which he said he believed had been resolved.
To those preaching tax cuts, he said while he will accept ideas from across the political spectrum, he resolutely will not return to the "failed theories" of the past eight years, which he blamed for precipitating the crisis.
To those who say some of the spending is unnecessary, he said that the money to make government buildings energy
efficient and to build new schools will create jobs now and pay dividends later.
To those who warn of the rising federal deficit, Obama shot back that he inherited a trillion-dollar deficit this year, plus the economic crisis.
"I didn't come into this ginned up to spend $800 billion," he said. "That is not how I envisioned my presidency beginning."
Asked about whether he is moving away from bipartisanship after only three Republicans in the Senate and none in the House have supported the stimulus bill, Obama said that a lot of bad habits have taken root in Washington and it "will take time" to change them.
On other topics, he reiterated that he wants to focus on diplomacy with Iran, particularly on its nuclear ambitions; he said Afghanistan, where he plans to send more US troops, will be "a major challenge;" and he said Alex Rodriguez's admissions of performance-enhancing drug use tarnishes baseballs and sends the wrong message to children.
And underscoring the rise of the Internet, Obama called on a reporter for the Huffington Post website, who asked whether he agreed with Senator Patrick Leahy's proposal for a "truth and reconciliation" commission to look at alleged Bush administration misdeeds in the treatment of terrorist detainees and other issues.
Obama said he did not know enough about the proposal to answer, but repeated that while "nobody is above the law," he wants to look ahead and fix policies going forward.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele responded by saying Democrats in Congress had loaded the stimulus bill with wasteful spending:
"The legislation moving its way through Congress bares little resemblance to what President Obama described at tonight's press conference. The spending bill written by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid is filled with unnecessary and wasteful programs that will saddle future generations with massive debt. With so many Americans looking for work, it's important to act quickly, but also act prudently. This bill will fail to have the necessary and direct impact it should - in part - because the Democrats rejected proposals to improve the legislation. The President has called on both parties to work together to solve this crisis; I hope Congressional Democrats will heed his call and listen to all ideas."
Obama's full introductory remarks are below:
Good evening. Before I take your questions tonight, I’d like to speak briefly about the state of our economy and why I believe we need to put this recovery plan in motion as soon as possible.
I took a trip to Elkhart, Indiana today. Elkhart is a place that has lost jobs faster than anywhere else in America. In one year, the unemployment rate went from 4.7% to 15.3%. Companies that have sustained this community for years are shedding jobs at an alarming speed, and the people who’ve lost them have no idea what to do or who to turn to. They can’t pay their bills and they’ve stopped spending money. And because they’ve stopped spending money, more businesses have been forced to lay off more workers. Local TV stations have started running public service announcements that tell people where to find food banks, even as the food banks don’t have enough to meet the demand.
As we speak, similar scenes are playing out in cities and towns across the country. Last Monday, more than 1,000 men and women stood in line for 35 firefighter jobs in Miami. Last month, our economy lost 598,000 jobs, which is nearly the equivalent of losing every single job in the state of Maine. And if there’s anyone out there who still doesn’t believe this constitutes a full-blown crisis, I suggest speaking to one of the millions of Americans whose lives have been turned upside down because they don’t know where their next paycheck is coming from.
That is why the single most important part of this Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Plan is the fact that it will save or create up to 4 million jobs. Because that is what America needs most right now.
It is absolutely true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or economic growth. That is and must be the role of the private sector. But at this particular moment, with the private sector so weakened by this recession, the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back to life. It is only government that can break the vicious cycle where lost jobs lead to people spending less money which leads to even more layoffs. And breaking that cycle is exactly what the plan that’s moving through Congress is designed to do.
When passed, this plan will ensure that Americans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own can receive greater unemployment benefits and continue their health care coverage. We will also provide a $2,500 tax credit to folks who are struggling to pay the cost of their college tuition, and $1000 worth of badly-needed tax relief to working and middle-class families. These steps will put more money in the pockets of those Americans who are most likely to spend it, and that will help break the cycle and get our economy moving.
But as we learned very clearly and conclusively over the last eight years, tax cuts alone cannot solve all our economic problems – especially tax cuts that are targeted to the wealthiest few Americans. We have tried that strategy time and time again, and it has only helped lead us to the crisis we face right now.
That is why we have come together around a plan that combines hundreds of billions in tax cuts for the middle-class with direct investments in areas like health care, energy, education, and infrastructure – investments that will save jobs, create new jobs and new businesses, and help our economy grow again – now and in the future.
More than 90% of the jobs created by this plan will be in the private sector. These will not be make-work jobs, but jobs doing the work that America desperately needs done. Jobs rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, and repairing our dangerously deficient dams and levees so that we don’t face another Katrina. They will be jobs building the wind turbines and solar panels and fuel-efficient cars that will lower our dependence on foreign oil, and modernizing a costly health care system that will save us billions of dollars and countless lives. They’ll be jobs creating 21st century classrooms, libraries, and labs for millions of children across America. And they’ll be the jobs of firefighters, teachers, and police officers that would otherwise be eliminated if we do not provide states with some relief.
After many weeks of debate and discussion, the plan that ultimately emerges from Congress must be big enough and bold enough to meet the size of the economic challenge we face right now. It is a plan that is already supported by businesses representing almost every industry in America; by both the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO. It contains input, ideas, and compromises from both Democrats and Republicans. It also contains an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability, so that every American will be able to go online and see where and how we’re spending every dime. What it does not contain, however, is a single pet project, and it has been stripped of the projects members of both parties found most objectionable.
Despite all of this, the plan is not perfect. 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. My administration inherited a deficit of over $1 trillion, but because we also inherited the most profound economic emergency since the Great Depression, doing too little or nothing at all will result in an even greater deficit of jobs, incomes; and confidence. That is a deficit that could turn a crisis into a catastrophe. And I refuse to let that happen. As long as I hold this office, I will do whatever it takes to put this country back to work.
I want to thank the members of Congress who’ve worked so hard to move this plan forward, but I also want to urge all members of Congress to act without delay in the coming week to resolve their differences and pass this plan.
We find ourselves in a rare moment where the citizens of our country and all countries are watching and waiting for us to lead. It is a responsibility that this generation did not ask for, but one that we must accept for the sake of our future and our children’s. The strongest democracies flourish from frequent and lively debate, but they endure when people of every background and belief find a way to set aside smaller differences in service of a greater purpose. That is the test facing the United States of America in this winter of our hardship, and it is our duty as leaders and citizens to stay true to that purpose in the weeks and months ahead. After a day of speaking with and listening to the fundamentally decent men and women who call this nation home, I have full faith and confidence that we can. And with that, I’ll take your questions.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.