- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

Distancing himself from a rough week that found him playing defense over executive pay, sparring with veterans and even offending the Special Olympics, President Obama retreated to Camp David on Saturday to prepare for a major budget push he said is a needed investment in the nation’s future despite bloated deficits.

Mr. Obama campaigned against what he called a broken Washington, promising to change “politics as usual,” and getting out of town to bypass the weekend talk shows and make his case directly to the American people has kept him popular while some congressional leaders are attacking his agenda.

The president was using the tools best suited for his message: a radio address outlining his budget priorities Saturday and an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” set to air Sunday, while his supporters knocked on doors.

“The American people sent us here to get things done, and at this moment of great challenge, they are watching and waiting for us to lead,” Mr. Obama said in the address. “Let’s show them that we are equal to the task before us, and let’s pass a budget that puts this nation on the road to lasting prosperity.”

As he spoke, Republicans lined up to blast the administration’s handling of the American International Group bonus scandal and to call for embattled Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner’s resignation.

It escalated Saturday as new documents revealed the bonuses totaled $218 million, $53 million more than the figure that sparked the initial outrage. According to excerpts of the prerecorded “60 Minutes” interview, Mr. Obama said he would not accept Mr. Geithner’s resignation should he submit one.

“The Democrats have been forced to admit that they allowed the AIG bonuses to happen,” Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele wrote in a letter to supporters Friday.

Even Democrats have questioned Mr. Obama’s priorities, chastising him for the whodunit-style mystery over how the bonuses were allowed to go forward despite the government’s 80 percent ownership of AIG.

Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, challenged the administration to better detail what went wrong with AIG, as Mr. Geithner prepares to announce a $1 trillion plan to buy toxic bank assets to fix the credit markets.

Lawmakers also worried that the new Congressional Budget Office deficit projections that the president’s budget plans would add trillions to national debt would mean a real battle over the next week, and congressional Democrats from battleground districts may face votes that will make them vulnerable to Republican attacks in the 2010 midterm elections.

“Nancy Pelosi and the Obama administration [are] busily working to build up a debt larger than our country or any country has ever seen,” Mr. Steele wrote.

“Enacting the president’s budget will only continue to sow the seeds of financial ruin at the expense of our children and grandchildren,” said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, the Republican Conference chairman.

But two successful days in California allowed Mr. Obama to recharge and lay the foundation for a week where he will seek to sell the budget as a down payment for the next generation in the face of that criticism.

He said the deficit only underscores the need to spend on the most important elements for a strong future, and at every stop he’s sold his budget as an investment, saying more money for alternative energy, education and health care reform will save the nation money over the long term and leave it globally competitive for future generations. He also promises to cut the deficit in half by 2013.

On “60 Minutes,” Mr. Obama was to say Wall Street executives would understand the outrage over excessive pay if they left New York to see how people live on meager salaries in the rest of the country, according to an excerpt.

As political foes in Washington take aim and centrist Democrats form a coalition that may challenge some of Mr. Obama’s priorities, the president is relying more on the nation’s governors and big-city mayors, larger-than-life personalities from all political stripes who say they will stand with him in the budget fight.

“The new president is doing exactly what he should be doing - tackling all those tough problems and not ducking responsibility,” said New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent who said Mr. Obama is acting “boldly.”

California’s Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in the face of “enormous challenges” congressional Republicans should focus on working with Mr. Obama instead of fighting him.

While embracing governors he said have the best understanding of Americans’ struggles, Mr. Obama even skipped a Washington presidential tradition, sending Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to the exclusive Gridiron Club banquet Saturday night while he worked from Camp David.

He also is digging into his arsenal of supporters, asking them to take their support for his budget directly to members of Congress through Organizing for America, which morphed from the Obama campaign to a new entity housed at the Democratic National Committee.

Using words such as “mobilize” and “take action,” Obama supporters planned 1,200 Pledge Project Canvass events to spread his message - six were scheduled for within 40 miles of Indianapolis, eight in Kansas City, 30 in Philadelphia, 42 outside of Manhattan and 43 in the Washington metro area.

The invitation for Peter Udo’s canvass in Greensboro, N.C., urged like-minded people to “put in our two cents” and “bring the conversation back into homes and communities across America.”

A San Jose, Calif., man collecting pledges supporting the budget wrote on his invitation: “President Obama. How good does it feel to say that? Want to keep saying it for eight more years? If we begin to take action now, we can make it happen.”

Republican strategist Dave Winston said Mr. Obama won’t be able to escape taxpayer outrage at the $165 million in bonuses that AIG executives are getting despite taking a $170 billion government bailout, because he can’t blame former President George W. Bush. “They own the issue,” Mr. Winston said.

But the California trip was marred slightly when he compared his bad bowling score to the Special Olympics, which prompted a presidential apology and distracted from the message of the day.

Mr. Obama also drew the ire of veterans groups last week for considering a plan to make them fund treatment through private insurance instead of through the Veterans Administration. The idea was pulled off the table after earning the White House negative publicity.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had a simple response for a reporter who asked whether Mr. Obama was losing control of his message: “No.”

“We’ve been called idiots before,” he said. “The president isn’t focused on the ups and downs of day-to-day scorekeeping. He’s focused on looking ahead.”

• Sean Lengell contributed to this report.

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