- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2009

UPDATED:

President Obama on Monday left the bitter Washington debate over his stimulus plan behind and traveled to a town in Indiana whose unemployment rate has tripled in the last year, promising a raucous crowd that he will fulfill his campaign’s promise of change by quickly pushing the deal through Congress to put Americans back to work.

“I promised you back then that if elected, I would do everything I could to help this community recover. And that’s why I came back today, because I intend to keep my promise. I intend to keep my promise,” Mr. Obama said, during a boisterous rally reminiscent of his campaign, where the audience chanted his name as he entered the Concord Community High School gymnasium in Elkhart, Ind.

The president, who has moved away from bipartisan rhetoric in the last week to confront Republican opposition to the more than $820 billion stimulus, told the crowd that Congress “can’t afford to wait,” warning of “deepening disaster” if nothing is done.

Unemployment in Elkhart, a city of roughly 50,000 in northern Indiana, has risen from 4.7 percent to 15.3 percent over the past year, racing ahead of the national rate, which rose to 7.6 percent in January.

“If we don’t act immediately, millions of more jobs will be lost; the national unemployment rates will approach double digits,” Mr. Obama said. “More people will lose their homes and their health care. And our nation will sink into a crisis that, at some point, we may be unable to reverse.”

“We’ve had a good debate. Now it’s time to act,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s why I am calling on Congress to pass this bill immediately. Folks here in Elkhart and all across America need help right now. They can’t afford to keep on waiting for folks in Washington to get this done.”

The Senate’s $827 billion version of the stimulus plan is expected to pass on Tuesday but then will face a tough round of negotiations between the Senate and House over differences in the versions they have passed.

The House version is roughly the same price, at $821 billion, as the Senate version but is heavier on government spending than the Senate version, which gives more money to tax breaks. Only a few Republicans are expected to vote for the Senate bill. The plan received no votes in the House from Republicans, who say the bill is a bloated mix of government programs that will do little to jump-start the economy.

Mr. Obama has said he wants a bill on his desk by this weekend.

Republicans in Congress continued to blame the Democratic leadership — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat — for shutting them out of the bill-making process.

“Despite our repeated attempts to work with President Obama, Speaker Pelosi has refused to work with House Republicans and instead crafted a pork-filled bill that even moderate members of her own party could not support,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, also said that Republicans in the upper chamber were not enthusiastic about the bill because they to had been left out of the drafting process.

But he also said GOP resistance had to do with the substance of the bill.

“I think [Mr. Obama’s] desire for greater Republican support was not possible because of the product the majority in the House and Senate produced,” Mr. McConnell said.

After his opening remarks, the president took questions from the audience for about 45 minutes, pointing out at the beginning that none of the people in the audience had been prescreened, in a shot at the Bush White House, which often tried to keep critics of President Bush from attending events.

“So there are some people who like me in the audience, some people who don’t,” he said. “It doesn’t matter — we want to take questions from everybody.”

Nonetheless, with the exception of one woman who said she was a fan of Fox News personality Sean Hannity, an outspoken Obama critic, most of the questions were supportive of the new president.

And Mr. Obama delved deep into policy detail, both during his speech and in answers to questions, describing plans to help homeowners avoid foreclosure and to mandate that utility companies produce a percentage of their energy from alternative or renewable sources.

The Hannity fan said Mr. Obama should have a beer with Mr. Hannity and then asked the president about failed Cabinet nominees such as former Sen. Tom Daschle, who she said are “not trustworthy, can’t handle their own budget and taxes,” drawing boos from the audience.

Mr. Obama shushed the audience, saying the question was “perfectly legitimate,” and then once again admitted a mistake in going forward with the Daschle nomination despite the former Senate majority leader’s problems with back taxes. He also defended his administration’s new ethics guidelines, which include measures to block former executive branch employees from going directly into lobbying the government.

“We have not been perfect, but we are changing the culture in Washington, and it’s going to take some time,” Mr. Obama said.

“Now, with respect to Sean Hannity, I didn’t know that he had invited me for a beer,” Mr. Obama said, as the crowd laughed. “Generally, his opinion of me does not seem to be very high. But I’m always good for a beer.”

On the way to Indiana, one of President Obama’s top advisers said that the American people support the more than $820 billion stimulus plan working its way through Congress because they are “desperate” for help.

David Axelrod, speaking to reporters on board Air Force One, cited a new Gallup poll out Monday morning showing that 51 percent of the American people believe it’s critical to pass a stimulus plan quickly. The poll also showed 67 percent approval for Mr. Obama’s handling of the stimulus bill debate, compared to 48 percent for congressional Democrats and 31 percent for congressional Republicans.

“The American people are desperate for us to act. They understand that we’re in crisis,” Mr. Axelrod said.

There were signs of some desperation during the president’s event. One man who asked Mr. Obama a question told him to “send that check to our mailbox.” Ed Neufeldt, a 62-year-old man who worked 32 years in the RV industry but was recently laid off, said that “there are too many people in our community whose way of life is at risk.”

Both Mr. Axelrod and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs ridiculed much of the opposition to the bill as an inside-the-Beltway, out-of-touch perspective.

“One thing that we learned over two years,” Mr. Axelrod added, “is that there’s a whole different conversation in Washington than there is out here. If I had listened to the conversation in Washington during the campaign for president, I would have jumped off a building about a year and a half ago.”

Mr. Gibbs said that “there’s a conventional wisdom to what’s going on in America via Washington, and there’s the reality of what’s happening in America.”

Monday’s trip to Elkhart was about “bringing to Washington the viewpoint of what’s happening in America,” Mr. Gibbs said.

“There’s a myopic viewpoint in Washington. And I think Washington needs to understand what happens in Florida, and Indiana, and Michigan, and Ohio, and Pennsylvania — states that have seen huge in unemployment, 598,000 jobs — Americans lost 20,000 jobs a day last month. That’s what we’re highlighting,” Mr. Gibbs said.

The president will hold his first press conference at the White House on Monday night and then travel to Fort Myers, Fla., on Tuesday for another town hall meeting, where he will be introduced by Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, the White House said.

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