President Barack Obama took his case for his $800 billion economic recovery package to the American people on Monday, as the Senate cleared the way for passage of the bill and the White House prepared for its next major hurdle: selling Congress and the public on a fresh plan to bail out the nation’s banks.
Warning that a failure to act “could turn a crisis into a catastrophe,” Obama used his presidential platform — a prime-time news conference, the first of his presidency, in the grand setting of the White House East Room — to address head on the concerns about his approach, which has by and large failed to win the Republican support he sought.
“The plan is not perfect,” Obama said in an eight-minute speech before taking reporters’ questions. “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.”
The news conference was the centerpiece of an intense and highly orchestrated campaign by the administration to wrest control of the stimulus debate from Republicans and reframe it on Obama’s terms.
Earlier Monday, the president took his message on the road, traveling to one of the most economically distressed corners of the nation, Elkhart, Ind. — a city whose hard luck story, including an unemployment rate of 15.3 percent, he invoked hours later at the White House as he sought to highlight the severity of problems facing ordinary Americans.
“If there’s anyone out there who still doesn’t believe this constitutes a full-blown crisis,” Obama said, “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.”
As he has since the outset of his presidency, Obama sought to draw sharp distinctions between himself and his predecessor, on both domestic and foreign affairs.
He took a swipe at the economic policy championed by George W. Bush through good times and bad, saying that “tax cuts alone can’t solve all of our economic problems.” He also criticized President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, a close ally of Bush. Yet he echoed Bush when he said the most “sobering moment” of his adaptation to the presidency has been writing letters to families of fallen troops.
Obama’s tone was for the most part serious and businesslike, and he was pointed in rebutting Republican criticisms of his economic plan, saying he was not willing to take advice from “the folks who presided over a doubling of the national debt.”
And while his answers were frequently lengthy, he steered clear of disclosing any details of the forthcoming bank bailout and housing plans or foreign policy initiatives.
The stimulus bill advanced in the Senate on Monday evening by a vote of 61-36; three centrist Republicans and two Independents joined 56 Democrats to move the legislation forward, with a vote on final passage expected Tuesday. But the bill passed by the Senate differs substantially from its counterpart in the House, and the two versions will have to be reconciled before Obama can sign the legislation into law.