Obama Answers Questions About Stimulating Economy, Handling Iran, Investigating Bush Officials
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Monday he wants to set up such a committee, echoing the sentiments of his House counterpart, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). Some Democrats want to investigate the alleged torture of terror suspects on Bush’s watch, among other matters.
At his first prime-time news conference on Monday night, Obama said he has not seen the proposal so he didn’t want to take a position on it yet.
“My view is also that nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen; but that generally speaking, I'm more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards,” Obama said. “I will take a look at Sen. Leahy’s proposal, but my general orientation is to say, let’s get it right moving forward.”
Asked about his strategy for engaging Iran, Obama repeated what he said on the campaign trail: “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, diplomatic overtures that will allow us to move our policy in a new direction,” Obama said.
“There's been a lot of mistrust built up over the years, so it’s not going to happen overnight, and it’s important that even as we engage in this direct diplomacy, we are very clear about certain deep concerns that we have as a country -- that Iran understands that we find the funding of terrorist organizations unacceptable; that we're clear about the fact that a nuclear Iran could set off a nuclear arms race in the region that would be profoundly destabilizing.”
Obama said his administration has expressed “the degree to which we want to do things differently in the region. Now it's time for Iran to send some signals that it wants to act differently as well, and recognize that even as it has some rights as a member of the international community, with those rights come responsibilities.”
President Obama’s first prime-time press conference was filled mostly with talk about the economic stimulus package that is expected to pass the Senate Tuesday. President Obama took questions from what appeared to be a pre-determined list of reporters from major wire services and television networks in an East Room gathering packed with about 200 journalists.
Despite some prodding from reporters, Obama did not express disappointment in the lack of Republican support for the huge spending bill. Rather, he said his recent meetings with Republicans are the beginning of a process of changing the culture of Washington to make it more bipartisan. He stressed that he has been “civil and respectful” in his dealings with Republicans.
The near-trillion dollar stimulus bill had no Republican support in the House, and 11 Democrats voted against it. On Monday, only three Republicans in the Senate (Snowe, Collins, Specter) crossed over to give the bill enough votes to override any attempt at a filibuster.
In an effort to sell the bill to the public, President Obama said it would increase unemployment benefits, provide a $2,500 tax credit for college tuition and $1,000 in tax rebates for many couples.
He also said more than 90 percent of the jobs created in the plan will be in the private sector for “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. They'll be jobs building the wind turbines and solar panels and fuel-efficient cars that will lower our dependence on foreign oil, and modernizing our costly health care system that will save us billions of dollars and countless lives.”
'No pork or earmarks'
Obama said he’s concerned about suggestions that the bill is “full of pork and wasteful government spending.” It is not, he insisted.
Obama admitted that some programs included in the bill may be “good policy,” but they are not job creators and therefore should be dealt with at another time. But, he added, when his critics characterize the bill as full of pork, they are playing politics. There are no earmarks in the stimulus package, Obama insisted.
He defended some of the projects in the bill, including a plan to make federal buildings more energy efficient. “Why would that be a waste of money?” Obama asked. He said retrofitting federal buildings will create jobs and “economic stimulus” while saving taxpayers money down the road.
Likewise a plan for the federal government to get involved in school construction: “[W]hy 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, that will enhance our economy, and, by the way, right now, will create jobs?” Obama asked.
“So, you know, we can differ on some of the particulars, but again, the question I think the American people are asking is, do you just want government to do nothing, or do you want it to do something? If you want it to do something, then we can have a conversation. But doing nothing, that's not an option from my perspective.”
Judging if the plan has been successful
In response to one question, Obama set up a standard by which American’ can judge if his stimulus plan has been successful in reviving the economy.
“I think my initial measure of success is creating or saving 4 million jobs,” Obama said. “That's bottom line number one, because if people are working, then they've got enough confidence to make purchases, to make investments.”
“Step number two -- Are we seeing the credit markets operate effectively? I can't tell you how many businesses that I talk to that are successful businesses, but just can't get credit,” Obama added.
“Step number three is going to be housing: Have we stabilized the housing market? Now, the federal government doesn't have complete control over that, but if our plan is effective, working with the Federal Reserve Bank, working with the FDIC, I think what we can do is stem the rate of foreclosure and we can start stabilizing housing values over time.”
Obama said “the biggest measure of success is whether we stop contracting and shedding jobs, and we start growing again.”
The stimulus package isn’t the only thing the government will do to revive the economy, the president said. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Tuesday will announce new guidelines “to start loosening credit,” Obama said. That will mean more transparency and oversight of the money from the $700 billion bailout going to financial institutions, also called the Troubled Assets Relief Program.
“It means that we condition taxpayer dollars that are being provided to banks on them showing some restraint when it comes to executive compensation, not using the money to charter corporate jets when they're not necessary,” Obama said. “It means that we focus on housing and how are we going to help homeowners that are suffering foreclosure or homeowners who are still making their mortgage payments, but are seeing their property values decline.”