WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday used his first news conference in office to urge Americans to embrace big government in the face of a recession he called "the most profound economic emergency since the Great Depression."
"The federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back to life," Obama said during his the news conference. He implored Congress to pass his $800 billion-plus economic stimulus program.
Noting Republican objections to his plan, he said that former President George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy had only "helped lead us to the crisis we face right now," and pledged that "as long as I hold this office, I will do whatever it takes to put this economy back on track and put this country back to work."
Taking questions on a wide range of issues for nearly an hour, he also said that Americans would eventually have to sacrifice to help pay for extraordinary spending now to meet the crisis. "There's no such thing as a free lunch," Obama said.
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He called news that baseball star Alex Rodriguez was the latest found to have used steroids "depressing."
And he said that his administration is looking for areas where we can "directly engage" with Iran. "In the coming months we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table face to face, diplomatic overtures that will allow us to move our policy in a new direction."
While making clear U.S. opposition to Iran's funding of terrorist organizations and nuclear-weapons ambitions, the president said he also sees "the possibility at least of a relationship of mutual respect and progress."
On another topic, asked if his efforts to court Republicans had failed, Obama said his overtures to Republicans, including putting three into his cabinet, "were designed to build up some trust over time." However, he emphasized that the nation desperately needs an economic stimulus package now, one that will create or save 4 million jobs, and in that context "I can't afford to see Congress play the usual political games."
The president's remarks came hours after the Senate voted to cut off debate on its $838 billion version of the stimulus legislation, paving the way for a final vote on it Tuesday. Then negotiations on a final compromise package will begin with the House of Representatives. The president hopes to have the legislation on his desk by President's Day.
Earlier in the day, Obama traveled to the nation's heartland, visiting a town with double-digit unemployment to put a human face on his urgent plea for more than $800 billion in new spending and tax cuts to jump-start the economy.
"We've had a good debate," he said in a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind. "Now it's time to act. That's why I am calling on Congress to pass this bill immediately. Folks here in Elkhart and across America need help right now, and they can't afford to keep on waiting for folks in Washington to get this done."
The trip to Elkhart, a blue-collar town of 53,000 that builds RVs and has seen its unemployment rate triple from 4.7 percent to more than 15 percent, was the first of Obama's several campaign-style stops this week meant to build grassroots pressure on the Congress to pass the proposed stimulus bill.
Obama was to follow the Monday night news conference with a town hall meeting Tuesday in Florida, and a visit to a heavy equipment plant Thursday in Illinois.
With more than 8,000 jobs lost in Elkhart alone, Obama worked to show that the suffering in the country is deeply personal and to explain how his proposed package would help people.
"We're talking about people who've lost their livelihood and don't know what will take its place," he said. "We're talking about parents who've lost their health care and lie awake nights praying the kids don't get sick. We're talking about families who've lost the home that was their foundation for their American dream, young people who put that college acceptance letter back in the envelope because they just can't afford it."
"That's what those numbers and statistics mean. That is the true measure of this economic crisis. Those are the stories I heard when I came here to Elkhart six months ago and that I have carried with me every day since."
Working to counter complaints that the proposal is filled with wasteful pork barrel spending, Obama outlined specifics on how they would help people in places such as Indiana and South Carolina.
In the news conference, he rejected complaints that spending money on such things as renovating schools is wasteful.
"I visited a school down in South Carolina that was built in the 1850s," he said. "It's right next to a railroad. And when the train runs by, the whole building shakes and the teacher has to stop teaching for a while. The auditorium is completely broken down; they can't use it.
"So why wouldn't we want to build state-of-the-art schools with science labs that are teaching our kids the skills they need for the 21st century, that will enhance our economy, and, by the way, right now, will create jobs?"
In Indiana, he explained that hard-pressed families could get an extra $100 a month in unemployment benefits, extended unemployment benefits, job training assistance and tax cuts.
Mindful of the old adage that "all politics is local," Obama broke down the proposed infrastructure spending even further. He suggested to applause that the bill would help "roads like U.S. 31 here in Indiana that Hoosiers count on," referring to the highway that links Indianapolis to South Bend, and said that "a new overpass downtown would make a big difference for businesses and families right here in Elkhart."
He put himself on the side of ordinary Americans, as though he, too, were watching with frustration at the political machinations in Washington, but still confident that something must be done.
"I'm not going to tell you that this bill is perfect. It's coming out of Washington, going through Congress," he said. "But it is the right size, the right scope . . . it has the right priorities to create jobs that will jump-start our economy and transform it for the 21st century.
"I also can't tell you with 100 percent certainty that every single item in this plan will work exactly as we hope. But I can say with complete confidence that endless delay or paralysis in Washington in the face of this crisis will bring only deepening disaster. I can tell you that doing nothing is not an option."
Obama has little margin for political error if he's to get a stimulus bill to sign by this weekend, as he hopes.
Senate Democrats expect the bare minimum of 60 votes Tuesday for their proposed package of $838 billion in spending and tax cuts. Then they have to hammer out a compromise between the Senate and House of Representatives, where Democrats passed an $820 billion plan that included more spending and fewer tax cuts. Throughout the week, Obama needs to hold as many Democratic lawmakers as possible behind the measure while still looking for Republican support to get the final bill through the Senate.
White House aides hoped that the trips would show that the public is on Obama's side and bolster their argument that complaints about the bill are inside-the-beltway chatter.
"There is strong support for this," Obama adviser David Axelrod said on Air Force One en route to Indiana.
He pointed to a Gallup poll showing that 67 percent of Americans approve of Obama's approach to the stimulus, 48 percent approve of congressional Democrats' approach, and 31 percent support the congressional Republican approach.
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