- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama played stand-up comedian Thursday on the serious issue of which White House hopeful is a better steward of the economy, by ridiculing his rival’s economic adviser for describing Americans as “a nation of whiners.”

Sen. John McCain distanced himself from former Sen. Phil Gramm’s suggestion in an interview with The Washington Times that the media have hyped the state of the nation’s economic slowdown and helped create a “mental recession” magnified by a penchant to complain.

Campaigning in Fairfax on Thursday afternoon, Mr. Obama recounted in detail The Times’ story in which Mr. Gramm made his comments, prompting his audience of 2,800 to hiss, boo and snicker.

“Today one of his top economic advisers … said that we’re merely in a mental recession; that’s what he said,” Mr. Obama said, chuckling. “He didn’t say this, but I guess what he meant was it’s a figment of your imagination, these high gas prices.”

He paused for comic effect while the voters digested the Texas Republican’s remarks, which Mr. McCain denounced when reporters asked about the story.

  • Click here for video of former Sen. Gramm discussing the economy and the nation’s ‘mental recession’
  • Click here for video of Gramm discussing why Democrats are gaining popularity in the South.
  • “Then he deemed the United States, and I quote, ‘A nation of whiners.’ Whoa,” Mr. Obama said. “A nation of whiners?”

    Mr. McCain said he disagrees with Mr. Gramm and speaks for himself, even though Mr. Gramm at the time Thursday was speaking on behalf of Mr. McCain before a Wall Street Journal editorial board.

    “I believe that the person here in Michigan that just lost his job isn’t suffering from a mental recession. I believe the mother here in Michigan and around America that is trying to get enough money to educate their children isn’t whining,” Mr. McCain said while campaigning in Belleville, Mich.

    “America’s in great difficulty and we are experiencing enormous economic challenges as well as others,” Mr. McCain added.

    But the presumptive Democratic nominee said it was a prime example for how the two candidates would govern differently.

    “This comes after Senator McCain recently admitted that his energy proposals for the gas-tax holiday and the drilling will have mainly ‘psychological’ benefits,” Mr. Obama said while the audience laughed.

    “America only has one Dr. Phil,” he said. “We don’t need another one when it comes to the economy. It’s not just a figment of your imagination, it’s not all in your head.”

    Mr. Obama argued, “If you can’t see the problem you’re not going to solve it.”

    “When people are struggling with the rising costs of everything from gas to groceries, when we’ve lost 438,000 jobs over the past six months, when the typical family has lost $1,000 in income in real terms since George Bush took office, this economic downturn is not in your head,” he said. “It isn’t whining to ask government to step in and give families some relief.”

    Mr. McCain, the all-but-certain Republican nominee, also took aim at Mr. Obama’s reference to TV therapist Phil McGraw to describe his opponent as a naysayer.

    “You’re talking about Dr. Phil. He’s Dr. No. He’s Dr. No on energy. He’s against nuclear power. He’s against the storing of spent nuclear fuel and he’s against reprocessing. He’s against offshore drilling. He’s against offering a reward for the development of an electric car. He’s against everything we need to do in order to make this nation energy-independent,” he said.

    He jokingly added: “I think that Senator Gramm would be in serious consideration for ambassador to Belarus, although I’m not sure the citizens of Minsk would welcome that.”

    Mr. Gramm expanded on his point in a telephone call to The Times on Thursday.

    “When I spoke of whiners at my breakfast with The Washington Times on Wednesday, I was talking about American leaders who whine instead of lead,” Mr. Gramm said in the phone call.

    He said he was talking about American “leaders who blame speculators and oil companies for high oil prices and yet have no proposal to produce more energy here at home.”

    The former senator also said he was referring to “leaders who think we can’t compete with even Mexico and believe that we should build a wall around America and go hide under a rock somewhere.”

    “Certain too many members of Congress and the Barack Obama campaign fall into the category of whiners,” he said. “We don’t need whining. We need leadership.”

    On Wednesday, Mr. Gramm told editors and reporters at The Times that the news media’s reporting on the economic slowdown was wildly exaggerated. The country was not in a recession, he said, or in a depression, because it was still growing, albeit more slowly, and unemployment remained relatively low at 5.5 percent.

    “You’ve heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession,” he said of polls showing that most Americans were deeply pessimistic about the economy.

    “We have sort of become a nation of whiners,” he said. “You just hear this constant whining, complaining about the loss of competitiveness, America in decline” despite a boom in U.S. exports and continued growth.

    The latest surrogate struggle changed the political conversation, which for a few hours had focused on the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose disparaging remarks about Mr. Obama were caught on microphone. Mr. Jackson apologized for making a crude comment about Mr. Obama during what he thought was a private moment in a Fox News studio.

    The Democratic National Committee (DNC) also condemned Mr. Gramm’s comments, saying he was “callously ignoring the realities Americans are enduring.” The DNC, which portrays the economy as mired in recession, took issue with Mr. Gramm’s take on the economy.

    “What John McCain, George Bush, Phil Gramm just don’t understand is that the American people aren’t whining about the state of the economy; they are suffering under the weight of it, the weight of eight years of Bush-enomics that John McCain and Phil Gramm have vowed to continue,” said Karen Finney, the DNC’s communications director.

    Top McCain adviser Mark Salter said Mr. Gramm’s comments are not representative of Mr. McCain’s views.

    “McCain travels the country every day talking to Americans who are hurting, feeling pain at the pump and wondering how they will pay their mortgage,” Mr. Salter said, adding that his boss has proposed a federal gas-tax holiday and a comprehensive economic growth plan for the nation to help Americans.

    “That is why John McCain has a realistic plan to deliver immediate relief at the gas pump, grow our economy and put Americans back to work,” he said.

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