During his first primetime press conference, Pres. Obama advocated for passage of his stimulus package as a means to "stop the downward spiral" engulfing the nation's economy, warning that inaction will prompt dire results. And despite the trouble he has encountered enlisting Republican support for his plan, he resisted suggestions that Washington's bipartisan nature cannot be changed.
"Old habits are hard to break," Obama said during the hourlong event, held in the East Room of the White House. "And we're coming off of an election, and I think people want to sort of test the limits of what they can get. There's a lot of jockeying in this town and a lot of who's up and who's down. What I've tried to suggest is this is one of those times when we've got to put that kind of behavior aside."
Questions for the president mostly focused on the economy but also ranged from Iran's nuclear capacity to steroid use by baseball star Alex Rodriguez. He called on 13 reporters from a pre-determined list placed in front of him at the podium. His answers were extensive, sometimes many paragraphs in length. His demeanor was stern.
The president's chief mission of the night was to make a clear case for his stimulus plan, which he did while also cautioning that "this year is going to be a difficult year." Asked how the success of his plan could be gauged, Obama said it should create 4 million jobs, stabilize the housing market and loosen up the credit markets. He said, too, that he wants to see businesses investing again and consumers feeling stable enough to make purchases.
Obama stressed that he "inherited" the deficit and the economic crisis from the Bush administration, and that the nation is stalled in what is "not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill recession." He argued that the country's economic troubles will accelerate if nothing is done. Congress, he said, can ill-afford to "play the usual political games."
"We can differ on some of the particulars, but again the question I think the American people are asking is -- Do you want government to do nothing, or do you want it to do something?" he said.
He avoided being drawn into questions about why he was unable to win a single Republican vote in the House and only three in the Senate, suggesting that the routine GOP commitment to lower taxes and tax cuts for the wealthy won't do the trick this time -- and hasn't over the last eight years. He also chided his Republican naysayers, many of whom advocated the these fiscal policies even as the deficit has ticked toward a trillion dollars.
"I'm not sure they have a lot of credibility when it comes to fiscal responsibility," he said.
On a separate note, one that still animates the liberal base of the Democratic Party, Obama was asked if he is inclined to investigate Bush administration officials -- per the wishes of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) -- for war crimes. He left the door open.
"My view is also that nobody is above the law," Obama said. "And if there are clear instances of wrongdoing that people should be prosecuted just like any other citizen. But generally speaking I'm more interested in looking forward than looking backwards."
Though the economy was the central subject of tonight's event, Obama also faced foreign policy questions. He was asked if he would reverse Bush policy not to allow media coverage of the return of soldiers killed in action, but hedged.
"We are in the process of reviewing those policies in conversations with the Department of Defense, so I don't want to give you an answer right now before I've evaluated that review," Obama said.
He also declined to answer specifically if he has in mind a timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, suggesting that the region requires more effective coordination of military and diplomatic efforts. He said that Al Qaeda should not be allowed to operate terrorist safe havens there.
"I'm not going to allow Al Qaeda or (Osama) bin Laden to operate with impunity to plan attacks on the U.S. homeland," he said.
With the news of Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez's steroid use dominating the headlines today, the president -- an avid White Sox fan -- was asked for his reaction.
"I think it's depressing news on top of what's been a flurry of depressing items when it comes to Major League Baseball, and if you're a fan of Major League Baseball, I think it tarnishes an entire era to a certain degree," Obama said, adding that he was most concerned about the impact of the news on younger fans.
"Our kids are hopefully watching and saying: 'You know what? There are no shortcuts," he said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said in a statement released tonight after the conclusion of the president's press conference that the stimulus bill belongs to Democratic congressional leaders, not Obama, a refrain members of the GOP have employed in recent weeks to explain their dissatisfaction with the bill.
"The legislation moving its way through Congress bares little resemblance to what President Obama described at tonight's press conference," Steele said. "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."
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) also weighed in:
"Our nation is in recession, and we applaud President Obama for continuing to make the case for action from Congress to help our economy create and protect jobs. As he said earlier this year and again this evening, both parties in Washington have a responsibility to tackle the challenge before us. In response to the President's request for input, House Republicans have offered a plan that creates twice the jobs as the Democrats' proposal - 6.2 million jobs total - at half the cost.
"Unfortunately, the trillion-dollar plan moving through Congress takes us in the wrong direction, relying on slow-moving and wasteful Washington spending that will pile even more debt on future generations, providing less tax relief than requested by the President, and encouraging dependence on welfare programs that hurt Americans instead of helping them."