- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Nearing the end of his first 100 days in office, President Obama on Tuesday tried to rein in expectations for the economy, warning that “hard times” were still ahead and criticizing what he said were unreasonable expectations among Washington's political class for instant results.

The president revealed no new policies or details during a 45-minute speech at Georgetown University that to many in the audience likely resembled parts of their classroom lectures.

But for the White House, the speech was intended to control a public discourse and media narrative that it feels swings too wildly from good to bad and back again on a weekly - and sometimes daily - basis, one senior official said.

Mr. Obama used his first major address on the economy in weeks to recognize “signs of economic progress”: Some police, school and alternative energy jobs have been saved, and increases have been reported in mortgage refinancings and in lending for auto and student loans. Also, some financial firms have announced large first-quarter revenues.

“This is all welcome and encouraging news,” Mr. Obama said. “It does not mean that hard times are over.”

Echoing top advisers who have said that hundreds of thousands of job losses still lie ahead, Mr. Obama warned that “2009 will continue to be a difficult year for the nation's economy and, obviously, most difficult for those who've lost their jobs.”

“The severity of this recession will cause more job loss, more foreclosures and more pain before it ends,” he said.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke also expressed cautious optimism about the economy, saying in a speech at Morehouse College that there are “tentative signs that the sharp decline in economic activity may be slowing.”

Wall Street did not share his optimism. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 137 points to close at 7,920.

New economic data, though, showed that wholesale prices had unexpectedly dropped significantly, reducing concerns in the near term about inflation.

The president spoke at length about the causes of the crisis and went into detail defending the steps his administration has taken to help the financial sector as well as the components of his $3.6 trillion budget proposal for fiscal 2010: investments in health care, renewable energy and education, along with “savings in the federal budget.”

The president called on Congress to pass a bill by the end of this year on financial market regulatory reforms that “punish short cuts and abuse” and include “rules that tie someone's pay to their actual job performance.”

Republicans continued to fault the president's economic plan, citing Congressional Budget Office projections that show an increase from the current $8 trillion national debt to $17.2 trillion over the next 10 years, and questioning the validity of Mr. Obama's claim that the $787 billion stimulus spending deal passed in his first month will save or create 3.5 million jobs.

The president, whose attention has been diverted to foreign policy for much of the past two weeks, showed that he was aware of that criticism and of the larger emerging meta-narrative shaped by his critics.

“I know there's a criticism out there that my administration has been spending with reckless abandon, pushing a liberal social agenda while mortgaging our children's future,” Mr. Obama said, as a small group of pro-life demonstrators yelled through a megaphone outside Georgetown's 130-year-old Healy Hall.

Mr. Obama defended his administration's efforts to stimulate the economy and unfreeze credit markets. While households and businesses are reducing spending, he said, “the government has to step in and temporarily boost spending in order to stimulate demand.”

He argued that bailouts for banks and other financial institutions have been necessary because “$1 of capital in a bank can actually result in $8 or $10 of loans to families and businesses.”

“That's a multiplier effect that can ultimately lead to a faster pace of economic growth. That's why we have to fix the banks,” he said, though he expressed sympathy for the question he is often asked in letters and conversations with regular Americans.

“Where's my bailout?” people ask him, the president said.

He rejected arguments for full government takeovers of the banks - calling it “the nationalization argument” - saying this will “end up costing taxpayers even more in the end” and “is more likely to undermine than to create confidence.”

The president labeled critics as short-sighted and portrayed himself as prescribing fixes that will address long-term challenges such as swelling entitlement obligations, the nation's growing debt, the crumbling education system and U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Mr. Obama knocked “an impatience that characterizes this town - an attention span that has only grown shorter with the 24-hour news cycle and insists on instant gratification in the form of instant results or higher poll numbers.”

The president said his speech was a “step back” to refocus on the economy after two weeks that have been dominated mostly by foreign policy, with an eight-day trip abroad and then a crisis last week involving Somali pirates that lasted through the weekend.

Polls showed continued support for Mr. Obama's handling of the economy. A Gallup Poll released Tuesday showed that 71 percent had “a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in President Obama to do or recommend the right thing for the economy,” while a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll Tuesday showed that 58 percent of respondents said the president has “a clear plan for solving the country's economic problems,” though 42 percent said he does not.

Also on Tuesday, the White House said Mr. Obama is expected to release his tax returns Wednesday.

The president's visit to Georgetown was protested by some of the same pro-life activists who have been spearheading a movement to stop Mr. Obama from speaking at Notre Dame University's commencement next month, because of Mr. Obama's support for legalized abortion and federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

“What Georgetown is doing is trying to protect Notre Dame's back,” said Randal Terry, a longtime pro-life activist who has served jail time for civil disobedience protests against abortion clinics.

During the president's speech, Mr. Terry could be heard, at least by those in the back of the room, shouting on a megaphone: “Obama, abortion is murder.”

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