Obama's Do-Something Argument

By Dan Froomkin
1:57 PM ET, 02/ 9/2009

President Obama's appearance at a town-hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind., earlier today indicates that he has honed his argument for an economic stimulus package, boiling it down to a choice between doing something or doing nothing.

"Let me be clear. I'm not going to tell you that this bill is perfect," Obama said. "I mean, it's coming out of Washington. It's going through Congress." The audience laughed. "But it is the right size, it is the right scope, broadly speaking, it has the right priorities to create jobs that will jump-start our economy and transform this economy for the 21st century....

"I can't tell you with 100 percent certainty that every single item in this plan will work exactly as we hoped. But what I can tell you is, I can say with complete confidence, that endless delay or paralysis in Washington in the face of this crisis will only bring deepening disaster. I can tell you that doing nothing is not an option."

And at the same time, Obama's main message today wasn't something he said, it was where he was: "When we say that we've lost 3.6 million jobs since this recession began, nearly 600,000 in the past month alone, when we say that this area has lost jobs faster than anywhere else in the United States of America, with an unemployment rate of over 15 percent when it was 4.7 percent just last year, when we talk about layoffs in companies like Monaco Coach and Keystone RV and Pilgrim International, companies that have sustained this community for years, we're not just talking numbers. We're talking about Ed," Obama said of the unemployed father of seven who introduced him. "We're talking about the people in the audience here today, people not just in Elkhart, but all across this country.

"We're talking about people who've lost their livelihood and don't know what will take its place. We're talking about parents who've lost their health care and lie awake at night praying their kids don't get sick. We're talking about families who've lost the home that was the corner, their foundation for their American dream, young people who put that college acceptance letter back in the envelope because they just can't afford it.

"That's what those numbers and statistics mean. That is the true measure of this economic crisis. Those are the stories I heard when I came to Elkhart six months ago, and those are the stories that I carried with me to the White House.

"I have not forgotten them. And I promised you back then that, if elected, I'd do everything I could to help this community recover, and that's why I came back today, because I intend to keep my promise."

Obama's aides said the trip wasn't so much about selling his immediate audience on the stimulus as it was about turning Washington's attention to what's going on in places like Elkhart.

Indeed, there were more signs this morning and over the weekend that, even if he hasn't entirely won over Washington quite yet, the public and economists basically think he's on the right track.

Frank Newport writes for Gallup: "The American public gives President Barack Obama a strong 67% approval rating for the way in which he is handling the government's efforts to pass an economic stimulus bill, while the Democrats and, in particular, the Republicans in Congress receive much lower approval ratings of 48% and 31%, respectively.

"These findings, based on Gallup Poll interviews conducted Feb. 6-7, underscore the degree to which Obama appears to be maintaining the upper hand over his opponents from a public opinion perspective as he and congressional leaders wrangle over the precise form and substance of a new economic stimulus plan."

Steven Mufson and Lori Montgomery write in The Washington Post: "While economists remain divided on the role of government generally, an overwhelming number from both parties are saying that a government stimulus package -- even a flawed one -- is urgently needed to help prevent a steeper slide in the economy.

"Many economists say the precise size and shape of the package developing in Congress matter less than the timing, and that any delay is damaging.

"'Most of the things in the package, the big dollar amounts, are things that are pretty quick stimulus and need to be done,' said Alice Rivlin, who was former president Bill Clinton's budget director and who criticized aspects of the proposed stimulus in congressional testimony two weeks ago. 'Is it a perfect package? Of course not. But we're past that. Let's just do it.'"

Questions for Tonight

By Dan Froomkin
1:48 PM ET, 02/ 9/2009

When President Obama takes his argument for an economic stimulus to prime time tonight in his first White House press conference, I hope he delves beneath even his new-and-improved talking points and answers at least some of the following questions. (Some of which I cribbed from my list on Thursday.)

* When it comes to the overall size of the stimulus package, how did you decide what was the right amount? What was too much and what was too little? Was that science or guesswork?

* How did you determine initially that tax cuts should make up 40 percent of the package? And why do you now think a third is OK?

* How did you determine what the right balance is between short-term job stimulus and long-term investment?

* Why do you trust your economic advisers, particularly as quite a few of them are associated with policies that may have exacerbated the current financial crisis? And what do you do when they disagree?

* What if this doesn't work? How soon will you know -- and what will you do then?

* How do you usher in a post-partisan era if the leadership of one party (and arguably both) seems to have no interest any such thing?

* What do you make of the fact that the Republican leadership is redefining its party as one of opposition to your stimulus?

* Wouldn't it have been easier for you to tell Congress exactly what you wanted and then beaten it into submission if it bucked you -- rather than letting it cobble things together?

* What do you say to Republicans who worry this is the return of big government? And would you believe that if you were them?

* What was so bad about renovating the Mall? Why did you buckle on that one, rather than fight for it?

* New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman thinks the stimulus plan needs to be considerably bigger, and he also suggests that you start aggressively making the point that those who are standing in the way of your plan are putting the nation’s future at risk. Your response?

* Here's columnist Frank Rich in Sunday's New York Times: "There are simply too many major players in the Obama team who are either alumni of the financial bubble’s insiders’ club or of the somnambulant governmental establishment that presided over the catastrophe." What's your response to the charge that despite your vow to change Washington’s culture, you've already been co-opted by it?

* Your bank rescue plan appears to essentially give taxpayer dollars to the very bank executives whose high-risk, high-profit antics precipitated this mess. Why are you bailing out the people who should be punished? And why aren't you open to nationalizing banks that have, essentially, gone bankrupt on account of their greed?

Who is Obama's Audience Today? Washington!

By Dan Froomkin
12:25 PM ET, 02/ 9/2009

President Obama apparently didn't go to Northern Indiana today to sell his stimulus package to economically struggling Americans. No, according to his top aides, he went there to get Washington to understand what those Americans are going through.

Senior adviser David Axelrod told reporters on Air Force One: "One thing that we learned over two years is that there’s a whole different conversation in Washington than there is out here. If I had listened to the conversation in Washington during the campaign for president, I would have jumped off a building about a year and a half ago."

He continued (according to a pool report by Peter Baker of the New York Times): "The American people are desperate for us to act. They understand that we’re in crisis. They’re living it every single day. Obviously the place we are going to today is one of the more severely hit communities. But all communities are. They’re not into the machinations that folks in Washington are. They’re not sweating this detail or that detail. They’re certainly not buying into the argument that, you know, the New Deal was a failure and we shouldn’t intervene.”

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs later said: "We lost on cable television virtually every day last year. So, you know, there's a conventional wisdom to what's going on in America via Washington, and there's the reality of what's happening in America.

"I think today's trip in large part is -- this is not explaining to Indiana what's going on in Washington; this is taking Washington to show them what's going on in Indiana and all over the country -- and why people are hurting. You've seen the unemployment rate in this town triple in a year because of -- you've seen what the downturn of the economy has done to jobs and employment. And I think they are eager to know what's being done in Washington besides the same old, ordinary Washington arguments. They want to know what's going to be done to help them....

"I just spoke about bringing to Washington the viewpoint of what's happening in America. I think it's -- I think there's a myopic viewpoint in Washington. And I think Washington needs to understand what happens in Florida, and Indiana, and Michigan, and Ohio, and Pennsylvania -- states that have seen huge in unemployment; 598,000 jobs -- 20,000 -- Americans lost 20,000 jobs a day last month. That's what we're highlighting."

I'll be back after the town hall with more observations -- and some questions I hope Obama will answer at tonight's press conference.

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:12 PM ET, 02/ 9/2009

The Washington Post editorial board writes that former Vice President Cheney "should be apologizing rather than defending the extreme Bush administration policies on detention and interrogation that he championed."

Walter Pincus writes in The Post: "Leon E. Panetta, President Obama's choice to be CIA director, told Congress yesterday that he would investigate assertions by the current agency leadership that harsh interrogation tactics used on terrorism suspects, such as waterboarding, led to useful information."

Karen DeYoung writes in The Post: "President Obama plans to order a sweeping overhaul of the National Security Council, expanding its membership and increasing its authority to set strategy across a wide spectrum of international and domestic issues."

Margaret Talev and Carol Rosenberg write for McClatchy Newspapers: "After an emotional, private meeting at the White House with President Barack Obama, survivors and victims' relatives of two al Qaida attacks said Friday that the president quelled some of their fears about closing the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention center, promised them an 'open-door' policy and a hand in shaping anti-terror policies, and said he is considering a modified military commission system to try detainees."

Howard Kurtz writes in The Post: "Despite early speculation that the new administration would use newfangled technology to bypass the mainstream media, the president has been strikingly accessible, sitting for interviews or fielding reporters' questions virtually every weekday."

Mark Knoller reports for CBS News: "Though Barack Obama spent two years zigzagging the country on a nearly non-stop campaign and he’s only been President for 18 days, he’s already feeling confined at the White House. "

Ayesha Rascoe blogs for Reuters about the Obama family's attendance at a 50th anniversary celebration performance by the Alvin Ailey dance company at the Kennedy Center on Friday night. "The audience at the sold out show greeted the Obamas with raucous applause as the first family waved from a red VIP box decorated with the presidential seal."

Honeymoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:12 PM ET, 02/ 9/2009

Carla Marinucci writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "With the president preparing to go on his own public offensive -- with a campaign-style trip to job-strapped Indiana on Monday followed by his first prime-time news conference -- political observers say the tough sledding for the president and vicious partisan tug-of-war provide clear evidence that the post-inaugural reality check has hit Obama, for real.

"'You're new, you're exciting, you're from outside Washington and you're beating up the status quo -- and suddenly, you're no longer the change,' said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. 'You're the next target.'"

Froomkin Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:11 PM ET, 02/ 9/2009

I'm scheduled to be on MSNBC's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue tonight in the 6 o'clock hour (Eastern) talking to David Shuster about Obama's town hall today.

Meet Elkhart, Ind.

By Dan Froomkin
9:48 AM ET, 02/ 9/2009

President Obama heads into the belly of the beast today, leaving Washington for a depressed city in Northern Indiana with the highest unemployment rate in the nation.

Obama's first press conference as president is tonight at 8 p.m. ET, but the town-hall meeting in an Elkhart high school gymnasium at noon may be an even better gauge of how his stimulus package is playing with ordinary Americans. He'll take questions from local residents who lined up for hours Saturday morning to get tickets.

Mimi Hall writes for USA Today: "Layoffs are happening across the USA — but nowhere as fast as in this once-thriving area that used to be known as the 'RV Capital of the World.' One year ago, unemployment in Elkhart County was at 4.7%. Today, it's the highest in the nation at 15.3%, fueled largely by the rapid decline in the recreational vehicle business...

"This area did not vote for Obama in November, but The Elkhart Truth newspaper is on board with that message now. 'President Obama needs to help Congress understand that the stimulus package isn't about politics. It's about survival,' the newspaper said in a Sunday editorial....

"Obama's likely to get an earful from frightened residents who have seen property values plummet and foreclosure rates rise. Area church congregations are taking up donations for unemployed parishioners, and local TV stations are running ads telling people how to get to food banks."

Hall writes that Obama is being introduced by "Ed Neufeldt, a father of seven who lost his $20-an-hour job in September. He had been building RVs at Monaco Coach for 32 years when his boss came out of a meeting in tears and announced that the company was closing its plant, putting 1,400 out of work.

"Neufeldt, 62, has two children living at home, and two of his grown daughters and their husbands — all four also RV industry workers — are out of work as well....

"He didn't vote for Obama, but he's backing him now. In fact, Neufeldt will introduce the president at Monday's town-hall-style meeting. 'Sometimes you don't care too much for the coach,' he says, 'but you're praying for him to win.'"

In a dramatic contrast to former President Bush's town-hall meetings -- which were held almost exclusively in party strongholds, with tickets distributed primarily to supporters -- it was first-come, first-served in Elkhart on Saturday. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs explained on Friday: "I've watched the President do town halls from 2004 through 2008, and the audience has never been hand-picked, and neither have the questions. And we're not going to start any of that on Monday."

Jodi Magallanes writes for the Elkhart Truth that "thousands of area residents... lined up outside McCuen Gym at Concord High School beginning late Friday to get tickets... Many wanted to know what the president was going to do to bring back jobs and spark a correction in the financial sector of the economy....

"Julie Moore of Goshen arrived at 7 a.m. and wound up close to the front of the line. She wanted the opportunity to hear from the president that he'd be able to save the jobs that still exist in the county that's experienced the largest jump in the local unemployment rate during the last year.

"'We feel more affected by this now than when he was here the last time,' Moore said.

"Since Obama's previous visit to Concord in August, her husband has lost his job."

Jake Tapper writes for ABC News that Elkhart County is "a Republican bastion that Obama lost 44 percent to 56 percent last November, despite his impressive feat of winning the Hoosier State."

Obama is even inviting critics onto Air Force One, Tapper writes: "Two opponents of the bill will also be on board: Rep. Brad Ellsworth, D-Ind., one of just 11 House Democrats to oppose it; and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., a close friend of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel who voted against the bill but has been working with the White House on adding a business tax cut provision."

Expect more of the same tomorrow, when Obama continues his road show with a trip to Fort Myers, Fla. Beth Reinhard writes in the Miami Herald: "Obama chose a part of Florida that could be a tough sell. Republican John McCain won Lee County by an 11-point margin.

"The local congressman, Republican Connie Mack, voted against the economic recovery plan."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:02 AM ET, 02/ 9/2009

John Cole on the politics of fear, Tom Toles on Bush's last words, Walt Handelsman on Obama's heavy lift, Bruce Plante on Congress, John Riley on the Democrats, Tony Auth on the GOP, Mike Keefe and Brian Duffy on executive pay, Jack Ohman and Mike Thompson on apologies.

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