WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama sought to reassure Americans on Tuesday that his administration has made progress in reviving the economy and said his $3.6 trillion budget is “inseparable from this recovery.”
After sprinting through his first months in office, Obama is facing heightened criticism from Republicans, who have called his blueprint irresponsible, and from skeptical Democrats who have already set about trimming his top budget priorities.
Obama came into office amid lofty expectations and the worst economic crisis in generations, and he succeeded in pushing through a $787 billion stimulus and launching expensive plans to revive the banking system.
Tuesday night, against a backdrop of a broad national anxiety that the economy may still be failing, he attempted to recalibrate the high hopes to more closely fit the challenges he said lie ahead.
Although he spoke sharply once in response to Republican criticism, Obama struck a tone of common purpose throughout his second prime-time news conference, urging the country to be patient as he works on issues as divergent as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the malign impact of lobbying in Washington.
“We haven’t immediately eliminated the influence of lobbyists in Washington,” he said from the East Room of the White House. “We have not immediately eliminated wasteful pork projects. And we’re not immediately going to get Middle East peace. We’ve been in office now a little over 60 days.
“What I am confident about is that we’re moving in the right direction.”
Throughout the evening, Obama returned repeatedly to his belief that patience and determination will win out, declaring that the “whole philosophy of persistence, by the way, is one that I’m going to be emphasizing again and again in the months and years to come as long as I’m in this office. I’m a big believer in persistence.”
During the hour-long news conference, Obama faced no questions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, or terrorism. Instead, the president focused consistently on his administration’s efforts to boost the economy, presenting his first budget proposal as the critical and most far-reaching step in that process.
In a statement earlier in the day, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Obama’s budget “may be the most irresponsible piece of legislation I’ve seen in my legislative career. It’s an irresponsible plan that only makes the crisis we’re in worse. But when it’s all said and done, I think it’s time for a do-over.”
Responding with his most partisan comment of the evening, Obama said his Republican critics should look to their own history with the federal budget, accusing them of having “a short memory” when it comes to deficits.
“As I recall, I’m inheriting a $1.3 trillion annual deficit from them,” he said.
Obama’s appearance came on the same day that lawmakers grilled Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for hours about their knowledge of the AIG bonus payments and lectured the officials for not preventing them.
Repeating that he, too, was angry about the bonuses, Obama tried to tamp down the populist anger that has consumed much of Washington in the past 10 days.
“The rest of us can’t afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit,” he said. “… When each of us looks beyond our own short-term interests to the wider set of obligations we have to each other – that’s when we succeed.”
Obama’s comments Tuesday night – delivered in a calm and measured tone – were a departure from his emotional declarations of outrage last week that helped speed anti-AIG legislation through the House. He called on the public to “look toward the future with a renewed sense of common purpose, a renewed determination.”
Asked why he waited several days to publicly express his frustrations after finding out about the AIG bonuses, he coolly said: “It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”
The White House announced Tuesday that the president will meet with the leaders of some of the nation’s largest banks today.
“We’ve put in place a comprehensive strategy designed to attack this crisis on all fronts,” Obama said Tuesday night. “It’s a strategy to create jobs, to help responsible homeowners, to restart lending and to grow our economy over the long term. And we are beginning to see signs of progress.”
Most of the questions focused on the economy. But Obama also waded briefly into foreign policy just days before his first trip to Europe as president.
Referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said: “The status quo is unsustainable.” Benjamin Netanyahu, the incoming Israeli prime minister, has been deeply skeptical of the idea of creating a Palestinian state, but Obama indicated that the administration will press him to rethink that position. “We are going to be serious from Day One in trying to move the parties,” he said.
Obama also pledged to monitor the increasing drug violence in that country that threatens to spill into the southwestern United States.