- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2009

UPDATED:

A somber President Obama used his first prime-time press conference Monday night to pressure Congress to pass his massive economic stimulus spending bill, acknowledging it is imperfect but declaring he won’t negotiate with Republicans who think government should not intervene substantially in the economy.

“The federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back to life,” the new president said.

Mr. Obama pronounced “in fact, the party now is over” for free-spending Americans, defended his cataclysmic language on the health of the economy and said bipartisanship will have to take a back seat to getting an economic recovery spending bill completed.

The hour-long session in the White House East Room, before an audience of more than 160 journalists, was dominated by the economy, with Mr. Obama promising a “difficult year ahead.”

In the prime-time affair coordinated with a week of appearances around the country to sell his proposal, the president repeatedly bashed Republicans for doubling the nation’s debt over the last decade while they controlled the White House and Congress. Mr. Obama also ridiculed conservatives who have said the stimulus bill is going to make things worse.

Mr. Obama said he hoped to build trust with Republicans over the long term, but in this debate he drew a line between Republicans he said he could negotiate with and those who he said should be left out of the conversation because they oppose any government action at all, saying President Roosevelt’s New Deal answered those questions.

“They’re fighting battles that I thought were resolved a pretty long time ago,” Mr. Obama said.

As for the second infusion of $350 billion to the Troubled Assets Relief Program for financial institutions, Mr. Obama said the money is needed to restore confidence in the markets and that he will ensure the money is spent more wisely than the first installment, with better oversight.

“We are going to have to work with the banks in an effective way to clean up their balance sheets so that some trust is restored within the marketplace, because right now part of the problem is that nobody really knows what’s on the banks’ books,” said Mr. Obama. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner will lay out principles for using the money Tuesday.

He promised to review the policy that prevents press coverage of U.S. troops killed in action overseas, though in response to a question he said he wants to hear the results of the review before overturning the Bush administration policy.

He said New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez’s admission that he took steroids was “depressing news,” but praised Major League Baseball for taking steps to clean up the sport.

“It tarnishes an entire era to some degree,” he said.

On the international scene, Mr. Obama said he has shown Iran that he wants U.S. engagement, by delivering his first television interview to Al Arabiya and naming a special envoy to the Middle East. He said now Iran must show it’s ready.

“In the coming months, we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table, face to face - of diplomatic overtures that will allow us to move our policy in a new direction,” Mr. Obama said.

“Now it’s time for Iran to send some signals that it wants to act differently as well,” he said.

Mr. Obama would not rule out prosecuting Bush administration officials for actions taken during the prosecution of the war on terror, but put it as a low priority.

“My view is also that nobody’s above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen. But that generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards,” he said.

The press conference capped Mr. Obama’s most active day to date as he pushed Congress to deliver an economic recovery spending bill to his desk by this weekend.

On Monday afternoon, Mr. Obama held his first town hall as president, taking questions from voters in Elkhart, Ind., which Mr. Obama used as a backdrop because the town’s unemployment rate has more than tripled to 15.3 percent over the past year.

The House two weeks ago passed an $821 billion recovery bill, and the Senate is poised to pass its own $838 billion bill on Tuesday. The House version is heavier on government spending than the Senate version, which gives more money to tax breaks.

Mr. Obama has spent the past week moving away from bipartisan rhetoric to ratchet up pressure, including a biting address to House Democrats on Thursday in which he ridiculed Republican arguments in opposition.

On Monday, he repeatedly blamed President Bush for leaving him a disastrous economy and deficit, and said Republicans are being hypocritical.

“What I’ve been concerned about is some of the language that’s been used suggesting that this is full of pork and this is wasteful government spending, so on and so forth,” Mr. Obama said. “First of all, when I hear that from folks who presided over a doubling of the national debt, then, you know, I just want them to not engage in some revisionist history. I inherited the deficit that we have right now and the economic crisis that we have right now.”

Nonetheless, at the end of the press conference Mr. Obama declared himself “the eternal optimist,” in an effort to counter the somberness of the evening.

All of the major television networks carried the press conference live.

The night also featured a moment symbolizing the seismic changes in media under way when, when Sam Stein of the upstart and left wing Huffington Post received a question, and several establishment newspapers did not.

Earlier, in Indiana, Mr. Obama took questions for about 45 minutes. He pointedly noted that the audience wasn’t prescreened - 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.”

Most of the questions were friendly, but one woman, a self-proclaimed fan of Fox News personality Sean Hannity, 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. She also told Mr. Obama that he should have a beer with Mr. Hannity.

When the audience started booing, Mr. Obama shushed them, saying the question was “perfectly legitimate.” He then acknowledged he made a mistake in going forward with the Daschle nomination despite the former Senate majority leader’s problems with back taxes.

“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.”

The president will travel to Fort Myers, Fla., on Tuesday for another town hall meeting, where he will be introduced by Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican.

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