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Obama to Washington: Chill Out

President Obama is getting a little impatient at the shortness of certain people's attention spans.

Acknowledging a growing chorus of voices inside the Beltway calling for him to focus solely on short-term fixes to the economy, Obama yesterday made the case that if the goal is long-term growth (not "bubble and bust"), real confidence (not "false confidence") and lasting wealth (not "the illusion of prosperity"), then the nation needs to take a longer view than is currently fashionable in Washington's political and media circles.

In a fascinating, wide-ranging talk with top business executives yesterday, Obama didn't just explain his approach to the current economic crisis, he described how he keeps his head when others are losing theirs.

"We live in such a rapid-fire information-rich environment that people's attention spans go like this," he said, snapping his fingers. "And that makes for volatility in confidence. A smidgen of good news, and suddenly everything is doing great. A little bit of bad news — oh, we're down in the dumps. And I am obviously an object of this constantly varying assessment. I'm the Object-in-Chief of this varying assessment." His audience laughed.

"So my view — you know, people ask me sometimes, well, you seem like a pretty calm guy, how do you do that? I say, well, look, I don't think things are ever as good as they say and they're never as bad as they say. And things two years ago were not as good as we thought because there were a lot of underlying weaknesses in the economy, and they're not as bad as we think they are now."

That key passage comes at 1:02:25 in the C-SPAN video (above.)

Obama said a "spirited debate has emerged in Washington — a debate over what it will take to ultimately break the back of this recession and strengthen our economy for the long run. It's a debate that centers on one key question: Does the greatest economic crisis in our lifetime warrant extraordinary action to deal with the array of challenges we face? Or should we limit our efforts, and try to deal with them incrementally, or one at a time?"

And his answer -- think big -- is rooted in his analysis of how we got here.

In his view, it's not simply a matter of fixing an immediate problem or two, and then everything will be OK.

"[W]e cannot go back to endless cycles of bubble and bust," he said. "We can't continue to base our economy on reckless speculation and spending beyond our means; on bad credit and inflated home prices and over-leveraged banks. This crisis teaches us that such activity is not the creation of lasting wealth — it's the illusion of prosperity, and it hurts us all in the end.

"Instead, we must build this recovery on a foundation that lasts — on a 21st century infrastructure and a green economy with lower health care costs that create millions of new jobs and new industries; on schools that prepare our children to compete and thrive; on businesses that are free to invest in the next big idea or breakthrough discovery."

And, he said: "We cannot wait to build this foundation. Putting off these investments for another four years or eight years or 12 years or 20 years would be to continue the same irresponsibility that led us to this point. It would be exactly what Washington has done for decades. And it will make our recovery more fragile and our future less secure."

Obama said he is already moving aggressively on jobs, housing and credit -- and is moving as fast as possible, given the need to do some serious assessments of the true status of bank balance sheets, to right the banking system.

"I think there's some people, when we issued the budget they said, boy, these Obama people, they're really ambitious — they're taking on health care, they're taking on energy, they're taking on education — don't they know that there's this bank crisis right now, we've got to do one thing at a time."

But, he said: "Look, the budget document that we put forward is a 10-year document. We are, like any organization — just like all of yours, we have to do long-term planning even as we're addressing short-term issues. If we don't do the long-term planning, then we end up having more short-term issues again and again and again and again....

"The one thing I don't want to do is to replicate the false confidence that was premised on bubbles."

Peter Baker, in his New York Times report on yesterday's speech, channels the increasingly critical Washington chatter. Baker writes that "many in both parties question [Obama's] approach...

"The speech to the Business Roundtable was aimed at countering unease in Washington over the scale of the president's agenda, given the country's deep and unrelenting economic travails. The investor Warren E. Buffett, a strong Obama supporter, captured the sentiment this week when he said 'job 1 is to win the war, the economic war; job 2 is to win the economic war, and job 3.'

"Concern is growing in some quarters that the president's initiatives have not been enough to turn the economy around....

"But Mr. Obama has not been content to deal just with the immediate crisis as he works to get stimulus money out the door, stabilize fragile banks and ease the housing crisis. He has also begun efforts to rewrite the tax code to shift the burden to the rich; to bring down health costs and expand access to insurance; and to increase alternative energy supplies while imposing a market-based cap on pollution blamed for climate change."

Kim Chipman writes for Bloomberg that response from Obama's audience of executives was positive yesterday: "'When he left the room people felt better about him and his administration,' said William Green, CEO of Hamilton, Bermuda- based Accenture Ltd., the world's second largest technology-consulting firm. The executives 'genuinely want him to be successful.'

"Obama's emphasis on improving education and taming health- care costs were particularly important to the group, Green said."

The executives Obama called on after his prepared remarks were effusive in their praise -- but two of them did push back a bit on his plans.

Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg pushed for a more Bushian and less Obamaist approach to health care. "I think it's very important that we don't have a government plan competing with a private plan and finding out that our employees or the citizens in general could go to a plan that doesn't have the same incentives and requirements and behavioral characteristics to make sure that they do the right things long term," he said, adding: "We can do more with medical reform, medical liability reform."

Obama replied that he sees health care reform as a moral and financial obligation, and that part of the reason he has asked Congress to come up with a plan -- rather than just design his own -- is that he want members to appreciate the tough choices involved and why some constituencies oppose certain approaches.

But he told Seidenberg, "oftentimes...the resistance is not based on evidence, it's based on people's interests. Everybody is kind of dug in. They know that the system doesn't work, but at least it kind of works for them in one particular aspect.

Daniel S. Fulton, CEO of Weyerhaeuser, said he's concerned that Obama's cap-and-trade proposal to reduce carbon emissions would "effectively be a tax that would impose significant costs on energy-intensive industries such as some that we operate, and may impact existing industries' ability to fund needed investments in new low-carbon technologies."

Obama replied that he thought that his plan -- which enlists market forces to price carbon permits -- strikes a good balance. He also noted: "Under the cap proposal that we have it wouldn't even start until 2012, where we're going to be out of this recession — or you'll have somebody else speaking to you in 2013."

I asked you readers on Wednesday whether those who are suddenly worried that Obama is overreaching are actually concerned that he will fail -- or that he'll succeed. That led to a lively chat.

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column today that he thinks it's the latter: "Shouting 'socialism' didn't work, so now they're yelling 'overload' and 'lack of focus.' Critics of the Obama administration counsel the president and his aides to spend every waking hour -- and every available dollar, including stray coins found behind the cushions of the Oval Office couch -- on the paralyzing financial crisis. What these critics really want, though, is to delay or derail the progressive reforms that voters elected President Obama to carry out....

"Fortunately, Obama seems to be ignoring all the chatter. This isn't about Rahm Emanuel's too-cute admonition not to 'waste' a good crisis. It's about honoring a clear mandate....

"Wall Street's impatience is understandable; the geniuses of Lower Manhattan just want to get back to business as usual, having failed to notice that business as usual is no longer remotely acceptable. Obama's political opponents have a subtler motive: to occupy, exhaust and impoverish the administration, making its promised domestic initiatives impossible...

"Politically, there are no winning arguments against fixing health care or reversing the tax-cutting excesses of the Bush administration. A more promising tactic for critics is to attack the administration for trying to do too much and taking its eye off the ball."

Meanwhile, in a speech this morning, Obama's chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, said Obama's stimulus bill may already be making a difference. "It is surely too early to gauge the broader economic impact of the President's program. But it is modestly encouraging that since it began to take shape, consumer spending in the US, which was collapsing during the holiday season, appears, according to a number of indicators, to have stabilized."

By Dan Froomkin  |  March 13, 2009; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Financial Crisis , Obama v. D.C.  
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"Obama's political opponents have a subtler motive: to occupy, exhaust and impoverish the administration, making its promised domestic initiatives impossible..."

Because occupying, exhausting and impoverishing Iraq just didn't quite whet the neocon appetite for "regime change"...

Posted by: BigTunaTim | March 13, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

I've never found Peter Baker to be an objective source.

Posted by: SarahBB | March 13, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

I believe there is a cat up in the tree across the street.

Posted by: c420ach | March 13, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Look. He told those girls there was going to be a dog. Where is the dog already?

Posted by: lostinthemiddle | March 13, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

Sorta what happened in Iraq. When statues were falling and people were dancing in the streets, everybody was OK with it. As soon as soldiers started getting killed then their enthusiasm waned.

Posted by: ronjaboy | March 13, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

I have been off the internet since October 2008 and am glad to be back to continue the fight against The Fascist Criminal Enterprise within the business community and the pseudo republican party. These things may be out of political power, but they will always be a threat to the economic, social, and intelligent progress of the USA. Wherever they are, they should be exposed for what they are. Go get em!

Posted by: ghostcommander1 | March 13, 2009 2:15 PM | Report abuse

"When statues were falling and people were dancing in the streets, everybody was OK with it."

Except for the millions who took to the streets in the months leading up to the invasion. Other than them, yeah, everyone.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | March 13, 2009 2:19 PM | Report abuse

No, it was just a large squirrel. More porridge?

Posted by: c420ach | March 13, 2009 2:31 PM | Report abuse

You continue very good White House reporting, whose acid objectivity has not gone unnoticed.

The commentary from Post columnists and "news analysis" journalists recently has been like catching Boy Scouts drunk at summer camp telling vampire stories and wetting their pants.

Krauthammer, Will, Gerson and all the deflated Reaganites kicking and screaming about Obama and liberals. It is funny, really, that the Post's Fred Hyatt wants to duplicate the Wall Street Journal. These "educated" Conservatives aren't even watching these brilliant "Management consulting" roundtables on health care and the economy with the businessmen. That's not only dishonest and evasive, it is cowardly.

Posted by: walden1 | March 13, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

To date, including back through the campaign, I have been a harsh critic of Obama. Underneath the rock star phenomenon of Brand Obama there was a long list of appointees and advisors that deserved and continue to deserve intense scrutiny to gain insight on how Obama will make decisions and reconcile noble and necessary goals and aspirations with the likes of Emanuel, Summers, Rubin, Geithner, Clinton, Gates, et al. Each one an entrenched DC Villager representing a governmental apparatus more beholden to the corporate military monolith than we the people of the United States. "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" frequently passes my lips when examining cabinet personnel. I do not wish Obama to fail. I believe he and Michelle are decent, highly intelligent individuals with a firm understanding of and commitment to their young daughters and the challenges of their future. Especially in light of their ethnic heritage in a nation still deeply steeped in racism. The question for me has always been, especially when examining the makeup of his cabinet and advisors, who will he listen to? It is imperative that much the same as FDR asked the people to force him into policy decisions, that we who gave Obama this incredible mandate stay engaged with daily activism to counter the constipated mindset of the DC Village. Malcolm X gave a speech in the early sixties worth hearing regarding the differences between a "house negro" and a "field negro". Obama is entirely too intelligent not to be keenly aware that by virtue of his ethnic heritage, he represents for the first time in history a chance to truly represent this nation and its people in egalitarian fashion. That's a lot of pressure and it will be dangerous. We should recognize by now that those, nations and individuals, who refuse to play ball with the Village are often targeted with economic, military and other more subtle forms of violence. Ask Chas Freeman his thoughts on that statement.
So, there damn well better be intense scrutiny and pressure from we the people, because there will surely be organized, well funded pressure from those that will do anything to preserve "the business" as usual. Once again, ask Chas Freeman, the most current example of crossing up the Village.

Posted by: jeffreyw1 | March 13, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Things are not as bad as they looked four days ago. WOW. We're number one. RAH.

Now look at the debt of the government soon to be $15 trillion. My son points out that this is about $100K per US worker. The total debt within the US, all areas, is maybe three or four times that. Now some of this debt we owe to each other so maybe we can take turns paying off the debt when we are not serving each other hamburgers.

Short term, this week, the potential darkness has lessened. Long term we are all screwed.

Maybe we should relax, let the storm pass, let the flood waters recede and then maybe we can see our way through the cleanup. Of course we should rebuild more conservatively.

One year from now the economy will be what ever it is. Obama and the Congress will be given credit for partial success and will be castigated for failure. Enemies will say they took their eye off the ball. The health situation will not likely be different than it is now. The body politic does not have the courage to expand Medicare, even partially, to the unwashed masses. At least they do not have the guts to create or divert funding. The only way that can happen is if many big employers proclaim they will no longer provide personal insurance. If that happens there will be an attempt to "make insurance affordable". Only when the accounting is done will we start to discuss single payer, the obvious smart thing to do. The word "insurance" should not be used as it implies individual payer.

Posted by: LHO39 | March 13, 2009 3:03 PM | Report abuse

GWB had carte blanche to do what he pleased for 6 years, and pretty much did what he pleased in spite of the criticism for another 2 years after that. BHO has been in office less than 2 months, and already people are telling him to hurry up and fix everything or be labeled a failure. Both are symptoms of extreme short sightedness. While the party is still going on, we don't want to think about the cleanup afterwards. On the morning after, we just wish the cleanup would hurry up and be done already. Thank goodness Obama doesn't seem to be swayed by this kind of thinking. Steady as you go.

Posted by: n_mcguire | March 13, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse

During the 1980s, people joked that wall Street's definition of "long term planning" was the end of the next fiscal quarter.

These days, long term planning seems to be "in time for tonight's 5:00 TV news." How much longer will it be before people that have what we now call attention deficit disorder are viewed as foresighted, and people with longer attention spans are referred for medical intervention?

Posted by: Common_Sense_Not_Common | March 13, 2009 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Fair-minded people, looking back 4 years from now, will be amazed at all the "impossible" things we have accomplished and the true world-wide partnerships we have made. So deeply into a depressive economy and archaic ways of thinking had we sunk by November 2008 that it is difficult yet to see how different a world looks when seen from truly realistic viewpoints. I'm convinced that truth works. In spite of the thinly disguised rant and rave against what Pres. Obama is doing, it seems evident that he laid out the major themes of his administration during the campaign. Much of the country will continue to suffer - and those of us writing here are among the more fortunate - before there is significant improvement. But in the end, we may, just may, have a fairer and more solidly founded economic structure. That should be worth some pain and effort.

Posted by: Jazzman7 | March 13, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Pres. Obama is certainly the leader for these critical times. The people picked well, despite all the rantings of the GOP, the Limbaughs/Coulters/Boehners/Cantor/McCain. Pres. Obama shows calm in the midst of panic, reason and deep reflection of what to do and the "little" people seem to get it. It is the punditocracy, the talking heads, the dishonest lobbyists who are really out of their league. I believe that Pres. Obama will get us out of this mess with the support of the ordinary people.

Posted by: mstratas | March 13, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

From what I have seen so far, President Obama is more competent and clear-headed than anyone else in the government. I trust him more than I trust the Congress, the blogosphere, and the commentariat, to say nothing of Fox "News", Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing Republicans who want him to fail and will say anything that they think could make that happen. I am willing for him to go at whatever pace he chooses in whatever way he chooses and to see where the country is after 3 or 4 years of his administration. I feel calm.

Posted by: dschwa2222 | March 13, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse

The Washington Post Modifies Its Print Editions.....

You hear that Mr. Froomkin?... That is the sound of inevitability... It is the sound of the WAPO's death... Goodbye, Mr. Froomkin.....

Posted by: pwaa | March 13, 2009 5:24 PM | Report abuse

What a bunch of earnest blowhards. Wait a year Obama will have no supporters on the left and a resurgent republican party. But hey, he can always log on and read the hertfelt wishes of you losers.....

Posted by: pwaa | March 13, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse

"Look, the budget document that we put forward is a 10-year document. We are, like any organization — just like all of yours, we have to do long-term planning even as we're addressing short-term issues."

And that plan is what people look at to invest in. Obviously, over the last few weeks, no one was convinced in investing in that long term plan. Hence, Obama was telling the young and middle class folks to get more "into" the market and buy stocks--he is pushing to change the investment class.

Obama is currently buying time to generate those details & trust in his plan. It's like an internet company trying to get a home-run-hit product out the door when all it has is vaporware (if you worked for a internet startup, you know what I mean). We've seen this before and Obama is playing chicken with his opposition (and the people).

Basically, if no one likes the 'corporate' plan, they take their money out and move to another company--Obama forgot to mention that and that is the risk the US gov't faces--unless we move away from the capitalistic/investment model! Screw the wealthy that pulled their money out of the market, when you can get those college grads, gen Y folks to put their money in (and prop up the corporations).

Economies move in cyclic phases, hence boom and bust--it's natural. It's the gov't that regulates the amount of boom and bust--Bush did nothing and let it loose, hence why the last 5yrs we saw great expansion, but at a cost in the bust. Obama is a complete 180--he wants to control it (control growth). If Obama is thinking big, that means changing the model--why doesn't anyone call him out that he is truly changing the model? It's plain and simple.

Of course, the million $ question is: what is that model? Obama (i.e. Summers) is getting a grace period for defining that model, but that period is coming to a close over the next 2 months.

Posted by: recharged95 | March 13, 2009 6:10 PM | Report abuse

pwaa, please do not hold your breath, you and the big headed blowhard limpaugh wish this country to fail, that is the exact sentiment i have of the republican party,they want only the worst for this country and it's people. look at walter reed, iraq, tax cuts for only the wealthy, katrina, i could go on and on, but i think most americans get the idea. good luck in 2012.

Posted by: ninnafaye | March 13, 2009 6:11 PM | Report abuse

Also "spirited debate has emerged in Washington"....

From the context, he's trying to take credit for this! but...

It's from technology and people being exposed to the rapid-fire information-rich environment he criticizes that the debate emerged--the debate has been around since 2005--when the major blogs came out.

No, it's not the Obama policies, not the politicians, not the media. It was the technology that crated the spirited debate (as well as won an election for Obama). The stuff he criticizes is why the debate finally came to DC. Ironic.

Posted by: recharged95 | March 13, 2009 6:16 PM | Report abuse

The fact that a President is holding all these meetings, forums, and opportunities for journalists to question him, is a breath of fresh air for the American People.
We KNOW our President is working hard, is intellectually capable and confident in fielding all kinds of questions from all sources, and has our best interest at heart.
The fact that he is taking on so many problems all at the same time speaks to two things: 1. that is who HE is and 2. that is what the country needs. Put them together and your have who the country needs right now doing what he can do the best.
Republicans are being run over by his capacity to move on several fronts all at the same time.
This is what he did in the campaign and that foretold what he is doing now.

Posted by: cms1 | March 13, 2009 6:50 PM | Report abuse

Froomkin's incessant cheerleading for Obama is a nice counterpoint to his incessant demonization of Bush.

He's not a partisan, though. Right.

Posted by: bobmoses | March 13, 2009 7:25 PM | Report abuse

GOP just led us into two wars and the worst economic crisis in a generation. Before they start criticizing, they need to take personal responsibility to ensure accountability. If someone always gives you wrong directions, why would you ask them again on which way to go?

Posted by: truthman3 | March 13, 2009 7:37 PM | Report abuse

Sorta what happened in Iraq. When statues were falling and people were dancing in the streets, everybody was OK with it. As soon as soldiers started getting killed then their enthusiasm waned.

Posted by: ronjaboy | March 13, 2009 2:10 PM


Don't know what war you were watching but all the people that I know that were against the war, were against it from the very beginning. No one was OK with it even when statues were falling and people were dancing in the street.

Posted by: agolembe | March 13, 2009 8:06 PM | Report abuse

No, it's not the Obama policies, not the politicians, not the media. It was the technology that crated the spirited debate (as well as won an election for Obama). The stuff he criticizes is why the debate finally came to DC. Ironic.

Posted by: recharged95 | March 13, 2009 6:16 PM


BS. Why then was there no spirited debate during the Bush administration? Certainly we have similiar technology in the eight years of Bush. Why didn't the technology allow the same level of debate?

Posted by: agolembe | March 13, 2009 8:11 PM | Report abuse

The primary thing I take away with me from reading this is the assurance I always get from the president that: he understands exactly where things are right now, he's clear-eyed about every bit of it; he's working on it and he's confident.

That's really one of the best things I think a president could do right now - and we've got the best president imaginable for that. I always come away with the rock solid belief that President Obama isn't in any kind of bubble, but that he has the internal wherewithal to rise just enough about the turmoil to see the big picture. That to me is the definition of "pragmatic." You have to be able to see the whole, and to do that you have to move just slightly back to get it in focus. But he's never disengaged.

He's on it, America. We can all chill a little knowing that.

Posted by: Tena1 | March 14, 2009 1:23 PM | Report abuse

"about" should have been "above" and I previewed it, too.

doesn't speak well of my proofreading skills.

Posted by: Tena1 | March 14, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

Obama's rhetoric sounds like it is on the right track, but it is belied by the actions, or lack thereof, of Treasury under Geithner. Most of the "top business executives" will oppose what needs to be done - they always have. There is no hope that they or the partisan Republicans will support reform, so Obama and the Democrats should just do it, or try, without wasting more time.

Posted by: skeptonomist | March 16, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

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