What Obama Didn't Say
You could argue that President Obama deserved an easy ride at his news conference last night, given the amount of time and energy he has to spend cleaning up toxic messes left behind by others. He was clearly determined to use every question to return to his chosen themes -- health care, energy, education -- and in that formal setting it's hard to get any president off his stride, especially one who has such a way with words. Still, it's hard to claim that the members of the press corps had a good evening. They never really laid a glove on him.
The most obvious omission was that nobody asked about either of the two foreign wars our nation is fighting. We're sending more troops to Afghanistan, and fairly soon we're going to begin suffering more casualties. What's our goal, and what's our plan to get there?
Granted, the nation and the administration have been preoccupied with the economic crisis. But even there, a lot of questions went unanswered because they were unasked. In his opening statement, Obama said we shouldn't "demonize" every investor or entrepreneur who wants to make a profit. So do efforts in Congress to recoup the egregious AIG bonuses through narrowly written changes in the tax code qualify as demonization? Does the president oppose such legislation? Would he veto such a bill?
The president said it was "not sustainable" to have "the majority of growth" in the economy being generated by the financial sector and to have intangibles such as derivatives counted as adding to the gross domestic product. He wants to ground the economy in "goods and services," he said. I agree, but there's a problem. Derivatives may be figments of our collective imagination, but they underpin a huge amount of the lending capacity in our economy. How is an angry and appalled nation going to come to terms with the hocus-pocus that Wall Street must continue to perform? Obama has spoken of the need for Wall Street culture to change. Just what changes does he have in mind?
The news conference came after a big achievement for the administration: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's plan for rescuing the financial system had been given a rapturous welcome by Wall Street. Some critics said it wouldn't work, but a consensus seemed to be forming that it was at least worth a try. One thing Geithner didn't address, though, was whether a new infusion of government bailout money will be needed, sooner or later, to get the most troubled banks back on their feet. Obama probably wouldn't have wanted to answer a question about the potential need for more cash, but somebody should have asked.
Some listeners thought they heard flexibility or even retreat on the president's ambitious agenda of health care, energy and education. I heard the opposite -- a single-minded focus on these three initiatives, which Obama maintains are vital if the economy is to be put on sound footing. His strategy is to let Congress work out the details, but he was clear that he expects all of the Big Three to be reflected in the budget. One thing we'll learn about him, the president said, is that he's persistent. I'm going to take him at his word.
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