Showdown: Obama Warns He's No Pushover - NBC 6 South Florida

Showdown: Obama Warns He's No Pushover



    Showdown: Obama Warns He's No Pushover
    President Barack Obama speaks during his first news conference, Monday in the East Room of the White House.

    Yes, there will be time to change the politics of Washington and to give people wondrous examples of bipartisanship.

    But, no, not now, President Barack Obama made clear at his first White House news conference—not if it gets in the way of passing the stimulus bill on which Obama believes the nation’s economy and his own presidency will hinge.

    Urgency was the obvious message Obama was trying to convey to millions of Americans in the hour-long session.

    But to a smaller Washington audience—to both Republicans and skeptics in his own party—there seemed to be an equally unmistakable subtext: He is not a patsy or a pushover.

    He reached out to Republicans in opening weeks and got little support in return. Monday night he instead used his prime-time platform to repeat on several occasions that he was inheriting a mess—both a huge deficit and a failing economy—and that spending some $820 billion was not his own preference for how to launch his presidency but the hand he had been dealt.

    To the Republicans who oppose his path, he offered a choice. They might be philosophically opposed to government intervention, even if millions are losing jobs and “most economists, almost unanimously” insist it is necessary. Or they might be partisan hypocrites, who did not mind big spending and deficits under the last president but are prepared to let the economy “continue to tank” rather than work constructively with this one.

    If that framing struck conservatives as something of a stacked deck, it’s one they may have to get used to. The ability to instantly command a national stage is a default advantage of all presidents. Obama used it with a self-assured air, befitting someone who has both high public approval ratings and wide partisan margins in Congress.

    Even so, the evening was well-timed. For weeks, the new president has allowed himself to be buffeted by Democrats who said he was “negotiating with himself” in trying to win over Republican support, or Republicans who responded to his overtures by accusing him of a ruinous spending spree.

    On this occasion, he presented himself as a president observing the messy legislative scene, rather than as a participant immersed in it.

    For those accustomed to the oratorical heights of his campaign rallies or the lyrical aspirations of his inaugural address, this was emphatically a prose performance. He spoke deliberately, answering questions at length, pausing often to collect his thoughts, citing details in a clipped, clinical style.

    But if the style was different the content was much the same as it was when he was a presidential candidate: Republicans are in the grip of a discredited ideology. It was a theme he previewed last week in a gathering of the House Democratic Caucus in Williamsburg, Va.

    “Those theories have been tested and they have failed,” he said at one point at the news conference, referring to the Republican approach to the economy.

    As if to remind Americans that he had tried to do his part, Obama ticked off what he called “a series of overtures” to the GOP, noting the Republicans in his cabinet, his visit to congressional Republicans on Capitol Hill and their invitations to the White House.

    They have responded, Obama suggested, with “the usual political games.”

    At one point he sounded a sardonic note.

    “I suppose what I could have done was started out with no tax cuts knowing that I was going to want some and then let them take credit for all of them,” he mused about the Republicans.

     He was perhaps half-joking – but only half.

    It was almost an inner monologue moment, a gripe about politics as usual that, for a disciplined performer like Obama, seemed more fitting for Oval Office chatter with aides than broadcast for the world

    But his main point was entirely purposeful: Republicans have little standing in this debate.

    “First of all, when I hear that from folks who presided over a doubling of the national debt, then I just want them to not engage in some revisionist history,” he offered. “I inherited the deficit that we have right now, and the economic crisis that we have right now.”

    Discussing the stimulus, he was demonstrative, using both hands to make his points and at times even holding his arm out at full length so that it paralleled the ground.

    At one point, he launched into an extended segue in which he neared incredulity about why Republicans would oppose what he portrayed as common sense investments in social progress.

    “When people suggest that what a waste of money to make federal buildings more energy efficient -- why would that be a waste of money?” he demanded, adding, “Why wouldn't we want to make that kind of investment?”

    On health care spending and education it was the same message, aimed at casting Republicans as hopelessly out of the mainstream.

    “Why wouldn't we want to put that on an electronic medical record that will reduce error rates, reduce our long-term cost of health care, and create jobs right now?” he asked.

    Citing a still-operational South Carolina school built before the Civil War to expose the country’s infrastructure needs, he wondered: “So why wouldn't we want to build state-of-the-art schools with science labs that are teaching our kids the skills they need for the 21st century?”

    And as if anticipating the Republican response, he came armed with statistics to preempt their rebuttal. Even in this, he incorporated an unmistakable reminder of what is, for many Americans, the Recent Unpleasantness.

    “More than 90 percent of the jobs created by this plan will be in the private sector,” he said. “They're not going to be make-work jobs, but jobs doing the work that America desperately needs done, jobs rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, repairing our dangerously deficient dams and levees so that we don't face another Katrina.”

    Perhaps not wanting to be tagged with the far less popular congressional wing of his party, he conceded that the bill was “not perfect.”

    Yet, again, he argued that he had tried to make it acceptable but Republicans still balked – and audaciously so.

    “I think it's perfectly legitimate to say that those programs should be out of this particular recovery package, and we can deal with them later,” he said of those that weren’t job-creators.

    “But when they start characterizing this as pork without acknowledging that there are no earmarks in this package -- something again that was pretty rare over the last eight years -- then you get a feeling that maybe we're playing politics instead of actually trying to solve problems for the American people.”

    And if it wasn’t small-minded partisanship he was laying at the feet of Republicans, it was their more respectable but no less wrong-headed failed ideas.

    There is, Obama said, “some ideological blockage there that needs to be cleared up.”

    For now, he’s content to leave the blockage and get a bill on his desk. The civics merit badges will come later, he suggested.

    “I think that over time people respond to civility and rational argument,” he said.

    But as he learned during the campaign, and sought to return to Monday night after weeks of offering that olive branch, they also respond to partisan appeals against unpopular politicians.