44 The Obama Presidency
Live Blogging Obama's 100 Days Presser
If Obama's first attempt to boost the struggling auto industry is a guide to how he'll be as a primary "shareholder" of one (or more) of the Big Three, he may be able to turn around his ratings on the issue.
In the new NBC-WSJ poll, two-thirds of Americans said the president did the right thing in dismissing GM's CEO and insisting on large changes to the companies plan for recovery. Obama could use the lift: in the Post-ABC poll, 41 percent said they approve of how he's handled the situation with the U.S. automakers, by far his lowest rating in the poll.
President Obama said that his economic stimulus plan and other domestic policy measures should have a disproportionate impact on African Americans and other minorities, who are suffering most from the recession.
Obama, who has been criticized in some circles for not directly addressing racial issues, said that many of his policies, while designed to help all people, will help vulnerable communities the most.
In good times and bad, black unemployment rates are much higher than the national average. Currently, the black unemployment rate is 13.3 percent, while the overall rate is 8.5 percent. Obama's economic stimulus package extended unemployment benefits, brought health care to laid off workers, and made major investments in job training and education -- all of which should help minorities the most, he said.
Obama's response to a question about whether the White House is doing enough to help struggling African-American communities was to note that many elements of the stimulus plan have disproportionately helped those in need, such as expanded unemployment insurance. This was accurate.
In fact, though, Obama understated the extent to which the stimulus plan was targeted at needy communities and needy families. Dozens of programs within the stimulus package are weighted so that more of the money will go struggling areas -- there is more education funding for schools with many poor students, there is money for weatherizing the homes of low-income residents but none for middle and higher-income residents, and even infrastructure projects such as clean water initiatives are being awarded based partly on the financial need of towns and neighborhoods.
Yet Obama keeps getting questions from the press and lawmakers, such as his successor in the Senate, Roland Burris, about why the White House isn't doing more for African-Americans and others in the most need. Either the money hasn't filtered down yet to make an impact -- or just maybe, the White House hasn't been as blunt as it could be about the degree of targeting that is occurring.
On immigration, Obama said he would "love to partner" with his 2008 Republican presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and expected to set up a working group of key lawmakers this year to hammer out ideas for a broad overhaul of the system. Obama said he would make administrative changes in the meantime to show Americans that the government can be relied on to keep its promises to secure the border and uphold the law.
Reflecting Democrats' base among labor and minority groups, Obama emphasized more so than former president George W. Bush -- who tried and failed to achieve such a breakthrough -- the negative effects of illegal immigration to American workers, U.S. wages and undocumented Mexican workers.
But he sounded much like his predecessor in saying he wanted his government to "show we are competent and getting results" by enforcing immigration laws thoughtfully and seriously, "so we're building confidence among the American people that we can actually follow through on whatever legislative approach emerges."
Obama said he was "humbled" he could not as president simply tell what bankers what to do, suggesting he needed the support of other branches of government.
But at times the administration has taken steps that departed from congressional wishes. For example, the government has structured several of its programs to spur financial recovery in ways that allow participants to escape executive compensation requirements established by Congress in appropriating $700 billion to bail out the financial sector.
Obama expressed confidence that General Motors and Chrysler would both survive the financial crisis as competitive auto makers. He said he hoped "to get the U.S. government out of the auto business as quickly as possible."
But the government for now is only taking a larger role. It is moving toward a deal where Chrysler would receive significant aid from the United States and Canada, where the company has substantial operations. And the government may have to invest billions more in GM as it races to complete a restructuring plan over the next month.
It was interesting to see the president say, in his answer to an abortion question, that he didn't want to create a "straw man" in saying that some abortion rights supporters don't sufficiently appreciate the moral questions at stake on the issue.
Obama has been criticized by Republicans and in the press after his first two press conferences for his tendency to frame the arguments of the opposition in ways that seem to exaggerate them and thereby make them easy to knock down -- by saying, for instance, that Republicans in Congress want to "do nothing" to fix the economy, when in fact Republicans do want to do things, just things very different than what the president wants.
Obama's disavowal of "straw men" tonight suggests he's heard that criticism. That said, it's also worth noting that he showed this self-awareness on a question where he was describing the stance of a group of Democratic allies, abortion rights supporters -- and not Republicans.
President Obama: "I believe that waterboarding is torture."
CBS-NYT poll: Is waterboarding a form of torture? 71 percent yes; 26 percent no; 3 percent don't know.
Is it sometimes justified? 37 percent yes; 46 percent no; 7 percent depends; 10 percent don't know.
Obama spoke more frankly about the problems of the Pakistani government than his national security team has recently, saying he was "gravely concerned," not because the Taliban was going to "take over," but because "the civilian government right now is very fragile and don't (sic) seem to have the capability to deliver basic services."
But, he said, both the government and the military "are starting to recognize that is their biggest weakness."
Administration officials have been more reticent both in their expressions of public concern in the wake of Taliban advances over the past two weeks, and in their private assessments of whether the Pakistani government has woken up to the urgency of the threat.
Obama's comments follow testimony today by top military officials that approval of the $3 billion military assistance program requested from Congress is crucial to the effort to stabilize Pakistan. "We need to help Pakistan, to help the Pakistanis," Obama said. He said that despite his concern about current battles with the Taliban, he is confident that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal "is secure."
Obama just declared, "Ultimately I will be judged as commander in chief on how safe I'm keeping the American people. That's the responsibility I wake up with and the responsibility I go to sleep with."
So far he gets good marks on the core commander question -- 56 percent in the new Post-ABC poll said he is a good military chief -- and there's also little evidence that GOP claims that the country is less safe because of Obama's policies have significant traction: more said Obama's actions have made the country safer from terrorism than less safe (32 to 21 percent), with 43 percent saying his initial moves have not made much of a difference either way for the country's security.
What in the world is it with Winston Churchill?
First he serves as the inspiration for hawkish Republicans such Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush in the months and years after the Sept. 11 attacks -- Giuliani, in particular, took to the cigar-chomping Brit, going so far as to read a Churchill biography in the early hours of the morning of Sept. 12 when he couldn't sleep.
And now we have President Obama citing Churchill as a model for his indictment of the Bush administration's interrogation techniques, citing Churchill's instructions to avoid torture on German prisoners in World War II. It was a particularly striking example for Obama to seize on given that he had just a moment before said he opposed waterboarding because it violated American ideals. But when looking for an example of someone who had chosen not to resort to torture, Obama reached across the pond. Heck, doesn't America have some anti-torture heroes of its own that could be cited?
President Obama struck at the heart of the argument made by former vice president Dick Cheney that the enhanced interrogation techniques had saved lives, saying that having read the memos that Cheney is seeking to release, he still had no evidence that the techniques touted by the former vice president yielded more or better information than more conventional efforts.
Making this argument is a bit of a gamble, because Obama will be blamed for not allowing enhanced techniques if any terrorist event occurs. (Advocates usually don't mention that the most controversial techniques, such as waterboarding, ended in 2003.) But it's a safe one as long as nothing happens in the United States.
President Obama thanked Congress for passing his $3.4 trillion budget outline, saying the plan is "an economic blueprint for this nation's future."
The spending plan, which includes huge increases in federal investments in education, renewable energy and health care is seen by Obama as an essential element in his plan for the nation's economic future. The budget, however, envisions huge deficits going forward, feeding criticism among the president's Republican critics, who say he is mortgaging the nation's future.
Obama went on to argue that the investments are needed to build a new foundation for the national economy. "We can't go back to an economy that's built on a pile of sand, on inflated home prices and maxed-out credit cards, on overleveraged banks and outdated regulations that allow recklessness of a few to threaten the prosperity of all," Obama said. "We have to lay a new foundation for growth, a foundation that will strengthen our economy and help us compete in the 21st century. And that's exactly what this budget begins to do."
Taking his first question, on whether the United States should close the border with Mexico in response to the flu outbreak, Obama said he has consulted daily and sometimes hourly with public health officials who recommended against it.
"From their perspective it would be akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out. We already have cases in the United States."
Obama said authorities have ramped up screening and moved antiviral drugs and medical equipment to the border in case more is needed, but cautioned that the government must pursue sound science.
"How we respond intelligently systematically based on science and what public health officials have to say will determine in large part what happens."
Obama has asked Congress for $1.5 billion to purchase more drugs, develop a vaccine and take other measures to move resources around the country. He described the risk and the U.S. response simply and clearly.
"The most important thing is we treat this the same way we would treat other flu outbreaks, understanding that because this is a new strain, we don't know how it will respond," Obama said. "We have to take additional precautions," he added, "take out additional insurance."
As expected, President Obama led off with an update on what the government is doing about swine flu, and the AP's Jennifer Loven focused on it with the first question. It's an area where Obama has drawn good marks so far - two-thirds in a new Gallup poll approve of how the administration has acted - but also one where he has to walk a fine line between giving information and inciting fear.
Obama recognized this, expressing the need for "deep concern but not panic." In the new Gallup poll, about one in five Americans said they were worried about getting the flu strain, though very few said they had altered their behavior to avoid contracting it. The last thing the sagging economy needs is for consumers to sit home with tissues out of fear.
President Obama began the news conference by addressing the swine flu outbreak, assuring Americans "that their entire government is taking the utmost precautions and preparations."
Using the White House bully pulpit, he urged schools with confirmed or suspected cases to strongly consider temporarily closing and urging parents and businesses to have contingency plans in case children to have to stay home. He also advised every American to "take the same steps you would take to prevent any other flu," including washing their hands, covering their mouth when coughing or sneezing and staying home from work or school if they are sick.
A new Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism study out this afternoon shows President Obama getting far more positive press at the start of his tenure than either of his two most recent predecessors.
In a sampling of stories, editorials and op-eds over Obama's first 60 days, Pew finds 42 percent have been "clearly positive in tone," higher than the same period at the start of Bill Clinton's first term (27 percent) or George W. Bush's (22 percent).
The Pew report suggests several reasons for the differences, including that Obama is more popular at this stage than Clinton or Bush, but watch the tone tonight as press conferences offer opportunities for reporters to show they haven't gone soft on the president.
According to speech excerpts, Obama will say that the stimulus bill "has already saved or created over 150,000 jobs and provided a tax cut to 95% of all working families." It's hard to independently verify the job figure, which represents a sum based on various announcements from the states of companies and municipalities not firing workers, or hiring new workers, because of the stimulus money. But the overall economy is volatile and it's hard to know where stimulus money served as the "tipping point" in a decision to hire or fire an employee.
Obama has claimed his tax plan would provide relief to 95 percent of families since the campaign. Critics say Obama accomplishes this by hiking taxes dramatically on the other 5 percent and also offers relief to many people who don't pay taxes but nevertheless receive checks from the government each year in "refunds."
As President Obama prepares to greet the press corps and address the American public in a prime-time news conference, he is buoyed by polls giving him high marks for his first 100 days in office. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll puts Obama's approval rating at a strong 69 percent, and no fewer than a dozen other national polls over the past week show a positive initial reaction to the new president.
Most Americans in the Post-ABC poll said Obama has already accomplished "a great deal" or "a good amount," far more than said so of former president Bill Clinton at this point in his first term. And a majority, 54 percent, said Obama has exceeded their expectations, surpassing the numbers for Clinton or George W. Bush at the outset of their presidencies.
Will Obama fall back on these solid numbers tonight in response to tough questioning? We'll soon know.
President Obama is poised to hold his third prime-time news conference tonight, during which he is expected to deliver a report card on his first 100 days in office.
Obama will meet with reporters in the East Room of the White House at 8 p.m. ET. The hour-long event will cap a day that saw the president basking in the glow of the 100-day milestone, with polls showing two out of three Americans approve of how he is handling his job.
But the high approval rating comes amid more sobering news: continued contraction in the economy; an outburst of violence in Iraq; the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan; a federal budget proposal that projects large deficits well into the future; and the growing prospect of a global flu pandemic.
The president is likely to be asked about those issues and more tonight, even as he presses the case that his administration is making progress on those fronts and others.
"We are off to a good start," Obama said in excerpts of his opening remarks released by the White House. "But it is just a start. I am proud of what we have achieved, but I am not content. I am pleased with our progress, but I am not satisfied."
Posted at 7:42 PM ET on Apr 29, 2009
44 The Obama Presidency
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