Obama presses Congress to pass stimulus

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

WASHINGTON -- President Obama, pressuring lawmakers to approve a massive economic recovery bill, turned his first prime-time news conference Monday night into a defense of his emergency plan and an offensive against Republicans who try to "play the usual political games."

He said the recession has left the nation so weak that only the federal government can "jolt our economy back to life." He said failure to act swiftly and boldly "could turn a crisis into a catastrophe."

When the stimulus bill passed the House last month, not a single Republican voted for it. On Monday a compromise amendment for an $838 billion version of the legislation avoided a Republican filibuster in the Senate by a 61-36 margin, with all but three GOP senators opposing it.

With more than 11 million Americans now out of work, Obama defended the program against criticism it is loaded with pork-barrel spending and will not create jobs.

"The plan is not perfect," the president said. "No plan is. I can't tell you for sure that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hope, but I can tell you with complete confidence that a failure to act will only deepen this crisis as well as the pain felt by millions of Americans."

Obama addressed the nation from the East Room of the White House in a news conference that lasted about one hour. He hit repeatedly on the themes he has emphasized in recent weeks, including at a town-hall meeting to promote his plan earlier in the day in Elkhart, Ind.

"So my bottom line when it comes to the recovery package is: send me a bill that creates or saves 4 million jobs."

Obama acknowledged the difficulty of mending political divisions between Republicans and Democrats.

"Old habits are hard to break," he said. "We're coming off an election, and people sort of want to test the limits of what they can get. There's a lot of jockeying in this town and who's up and who's down, testing for the next election."

Still, he said, "I am the eternal optimist. I think that over time people respond to civility and rational argument."

While Obama focused on the economy in the opening minutes of the news conference, he also faced questions on foreign policy. He was asked how his administration would deal with Iran, a nation accused by the United States of supporting terrorism and pursuing nuclear weapons.

The president said his administration was reviewing its policy toward Iran "looking at places where we can have constructive dialogue." He also said it was time for Iran to change its behavior.

"My expectation is 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," Obama said.

He said that Iran must understand that funding terrorist organizations and pursuing nuclear weapons are unacceptable.

Obama tried to brace the U.S. for tougher sacrifices ahead in Afghanistan, where he said the national government is limited and terrorists still find places to hide and hinder coalition efforts.

An estimated 33,000 U.S. troops currently are in Afghanistan, and the Pentagon is expected to almost double that presence. So just as Obama is planning to pull troops out of Iraq, he is sending more into Afghanistan.

"I do not have a timetable for how long that's going to take," he said. "What I know is I'm not going to allow al-Qaida and (Osama) bin Laden to operate with impunity, planning attacks."

Obama ducked several questions, for example refusing to say if his administration would alter the Bush administration's policy of refusing to allow photographs of flag-draped coffins of America's war dead.

He also refused to say how long U.S. troops would be in Afghanistan after his planned troop buildup there. And he refused to reveal details of new rules governing the bailout of financial firms.

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