- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

President Obama said Saturday that investors can have “absolute confidence” in the U.S. economy, continuing a recent push to shore up markets after months of dire warnings drove stock indexes to decade lows and prompted worry from the Chinese government that its investments weren’t secure.

Mr. Obama promised to “not go backwards” on free trade and warned against protectionism in the face of an economic downturn, though he said “it may be difficult” to get any new trade deals done.

The comments came as the president met with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at the White House in advance of a meeting of leaders from the world’s biggest economies, known as the Group of 20, or G-20, early next month in London.

“There’s a reason why even in the midst of the economic crisis you’ve seen actual increases in investment flows here into the United States,” Mr. Obama said in trying to boost faith in the U.S. economy.

“I think it’s a recognition that the stability not only of our economic system, but also our political system is extraordinary. And so I think that not just the Chinese government, but every investor can have absolute confidence in the soundness of investments in the United States.”

After months of arguing that the economy was in bad shape and needed government spending to rescue it, the president and his administration have tried over the past several days to argue that the economy is in better shape than some fear. In the past few days, Mr. Obama, his chief spokesman, his Treasury secretary and his chief economic adviser have made the case to various audiences.

Mr. Obama said security extends beyond just U.S. Treasury notes to investments in the private sector as well.

The new push comes as Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told reporters in Beijing on Friday that he is “definitely a little worried” about his country’s investments in the United States. China is the largest holder of the U.S. government’s public debt.

For his part, Mr. Lula da Silva said there’s some worry because as money flows to the United States in the midst of an economic crisis, it flees developing countries. He said that question and others will have to be addressed at the G-20 meeting.

“We have to make more, quicker decisions; that is to say, the number of unemployed people are increasing in the world, and the unemployed of today is a social problem of tomorrow,” Mr. Lula da Silva said, according to the official translation of his remarks as he sat in the Oval Office with the president.

He also obliquely raised the issue of immigration, saying the downturn in the economy may be leading to problems for immigrants.

“We have to take care of this issue very seriously, because we already see migrant workers facing many problems in different countries,” said Mr. Lula da Silva, the first Latin American leader to meet with Mr. Obama since his Jan. 20 inauguration, though the U.S. president met Mexican President Felipe Calderon during the transition period.

Mr. Lula da Silva heaped praise on Mr. Obama, but also set high expectations for him. He asked that Mr. Obama reopen the Doha round of World Trade Organization negotiations and said he is in “a unique and exceptional position” to get things done.

Mr. Lula da Silva added that Mr. Obama is unlucky to face such a crisis.

“I’m praying more for him than I’m praying for myself,” Mr. Lula da Silva said, adding that he wouldn’t “want to be in his position.”

“You sound like you’ve been talking to my wife,” Mr. Obama joked.

Mr. Obama promised to visit Brazil soon, and when a reporter asked whether he would visit the Amazon he said he’d like to, then joked, “I suspect that the Republican Party would love to see me travel through the Amazon and maybe get lost.”

Mr. Obama said a long-running feud over a U.S. tariff on ethanol, of which Brazil is the world’s largest producer, won’t be solved in the short term. But the U.S. president said the two countries need to cooperate on technology and science for now and “over time, this source of tension can get resolved.”

The Brazilian president, who in 2007 hosted then-President Bush and pushed cooperation on ethanol, said he understood it was a long process to deal with ethanol and other trade barriers.

Mr. Obama also has been conducting a round of calls with world leaders to lay the groundwork for the G-20 meeting, and he disputed reports of conflict among top officials within his administration or between his administration and G-20 countries.

The world’s finance ministers and central bank governors gathered this weekend in London to prepare the field for the leaders.

The United States has been pushing countries to follow its model of increased government spending, arguing that it would stimulate economies. Other nations have been pushing for international finance rules that they say would prevent a repeat of a financial system meltdown that has dried up credit.

Mr. Obama said he’s serious about trying to get both done.

“This is a phony debate that I think has evolved over the last few days in the news cycle,” he said.

Speaking in London, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said a broad consensus was developing at the ministers’ meeting that both stimulus and financial regulations need to happen.

He also said the ministers agreed with demands by some emerging economies for a bigger role in governing international bodies, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

“We are committed to accelerating the timetable of reform of the broader governance structure of the international financial institutions to increase the role of developing countries in these institutions,” he said.

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