- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

President Obama on Wednesday acknowledged that enhanced interrogation tactics such as waterboarding may glean information from terrorists but said that those techniques constitute “torture” and that the country is made safer by not using them.

On his 100th day in office, Mr. Obama used a prime-time press conference for a victory lap to tout his economic recovery efforts and his outreach to other countries. But he said he’s been surprised by the myriad challenges that have hit at once, ranging from deterioration in Pakistan to continued problems with the U.S. auto industry and potential flu pandemic to the political fallout from his decision to scrap enhanced interrogation techniques.

“I will do whatever is required to keep the American people safe, but I am absolutely convinced that the best way I can do that is to make sure we are not taking shortcuts that undermine who we are,” he said. “There have been no circumstances during the course of this first hundred days in which I have seen information that would make me second-guess the decision I have made.”

He said he has read the memos former Vice President Dick Cheney has asked be declassified and that the Republican says would show the tactics worked to get critical information that prevented attacks. But Mr. Obama said the memos don’t prove the information couldn’t have been gotten by other methods, and said even if America’s job is harder, it’s worth the trade-off.

“You start taking shortcuts, and over time, that corrodes what’s best in the people. It corrodes the character of a country,” the Democrat said.

Mr. Obama’s decision earlier this month to declassify Bush administration memos detailing the interrogation techniques set off a political firestorm, with some Democrats calling for the lawyers who wrote the rules to be prosecuted and Republicans arguing that the memos’ release hurt national security.

There are several congressional committees proceeding with hearings or investigations, but momentum appears to have waned for an independent “truth commission” to look into the Bush-era tactics, which Mr. Obama ended when he took office.

The most immediate challenge facing the new president is Chrysler’s struggle. The automaker had until Thursday to complete a merger with Fiat and a restructuring plan to prove it can survive in the modern marketplace.

“I’m feeling more optimistic than I was,” Mr. Obama told a reporter from Detroit, the heart of the auto industry, who asked about that plan.

Mr. Obama also sounded concern on Pakistan, saying that its civilian government there has not proved that it can provide “basic services, schools, health care, rule of law, a judicial system that works for a majority of the people.”

Still, he said he is not worried that South Asian nation’s nuclear weapons will fall into the wrong hands, saying that Pakistan’s military is a strong institution with a good working relationship with the U.S.

Mr. Obama briefly talked about new Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who defected from the Republican Party, saying it was a way to “liberate” him to “cooperate” with the administration on areas they agree.

He also stressed his efforts reaching out to Republicans have been “genuine” but said he does not define bipartisanship as accepting Republican ideas that didn’t work in the past eight years and which, he reminded them, voters rejected during his “historic” election.

The president said the state secrets doctrine is “overboard” and should be “modified,” even as administration attorneys have been arguing to uphold Bush-era restrictions on disclosure.

He said his lawyers are working on the leftover court filing that hit them when he took office and that eventually they will find ways to make sure redactions are not so “blunt.”

“There are going to be cases in which national security interests are genuinely at stake and that you can’t litigate without revealing covert activities or classified information that would genuinely compromise our safety,” he said, adding that in some cases, the administration will want additional tools “so that a judge in chambers can review information without it being in open court.”

Mr. Obama also had prominent praise for his predecessor, saying George W. Bush’s efforts to stockpile vaccines against the bird flu in 2005 will pay off now as the country prepares to battle the swine flu, noting that the last administration created good infrastructure that is aiding the response.

Mr. Obama portrayed his first 100 days as “a good start” and said the time allowed him to “clear away the wreckage of this recession.”

Warning as he often has of more tough days ahead, Mr. Obama said his aim has been to lay a “new foundation” and offered another pitch for his budget that cleared both chambers of Congress Wednesday.

“I am proud of what we have achieved, but I am not content,” Mr. Obama said. “I am pleased with our progress, but I am not satisfied.”

Mr. Obama deflected a question about criticism of his planned graduation speech at Catholic university Notre Dame over his pro-choice views. Instead, he noted that his administration has formed a teen pregnancy task force to try to curb the newly rising rates of young women getting pregnant. He said although he wants to cut the number of abortions, he remains pro-choice.

He added that the Freedom of Choice Act, which would eliminate federal, state and local restrictions on abortions, is “not my highest legislative priority.” Instead, he wants to “tamp down some of the anger” over the issue by bringing both pro-life and pro-choice groups together.

He also said that although he will start the process of trying to get an immigration bill done this year, he won’t control the timing. He said his focus for now is on trying to secure the border and improve enforcement against employers who hire illegal immigrants, adopting language very similar to Mr. Bush’s after his own efforts to pass an immigration bill failed in 2007.

Republicans used the 100-day mark to argue that Mr. Obama’s legacy is red ink.

“President Obama has had a record-breaking 100 days in office,” said Rep. John Shade, Arizona Republican. “Unfortunately, he’s broken all the wrong records spending, taxing and borrowing more money in less time then ever before.”

The 100-day point came as the Commerce Department announced the nation’s gross domestic product, the measure of the economy, fell by an annual rate of 6.1 percent in the first quarter of this year.

It was Mr. Obama’s third press conference of his young administration, and each of them came in prime time.

And for the second time, he coupled the evening affair with a town hall earlier in the day to take questions from average Americans.

Speaking at a high school in the St. Louis suburb of Arnold, Mo., the president fielded questions that ranged from how he plans to make his administration more environmentally friendly to how he would assure worried workers that they will still have Social Security and pension funds when they retire.

He took particular umbrag#e with “those of you who are watching certain news channels on which I’m not very popular and you see folks waving tea bags around,” referring to the anti-tax tea parties conservatives attended earlier this month that received heavy coverage on the Fox News Channel.

“I am happy to have a serious conversation about how we are going to cut our health care costs down over the long term, how we’re going to stabilize Social Security,” he said. “Let’s not play games and pretend that the reason is because of the recovery act, because that’s just a fraction of the overall problem that we’ve got. We are going to have to tighten our belts, but we’re going to have to do it in an intelligent way, and we’ve got to make sure that the people who are helped are working American families.”

The president said “it’s not like anybody should be surprised” with his actions since his Jan. 20 inauguration.

“There’s no mystery to what we’ve done,” he said. “The policies we’ve proposed were plans we talked about for two years in places like this all across the country with ordinary Americans. The changes we’ve made are the changes we’ve promised. We are doing what we said we’d do.”

Mr. Obama consistently used campaign-style language at the town hall, praising the “middle of America where common sense often reigns” and keeping an eye on the Show Me state’s swing status, reminding Missourians that he spent one of his last days of the campaign there.

Standing in the one competitive battleground state that went for his Republican rival in November, Mr. Obama said he likes getting out of Washington to hear from everyday people and added, “I don’t want to let you down.”

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