(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Obama covered a wide range of issues in his first primetime press conference, touching on topics as disparate as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and revelations that Alex Rodriguez had abused steroids during his Major League Baseball career.
There were 156 reporters in the room, Mr. Obama called on 13 of them.
Among them were news organizations that rarely if ever got called on during
the previous presidency, points out CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller
, including HuffingtonPost.com and columnist Helen Thomas. Upon recognizing Thomas (at left
), who has been a fixture at White House press briefings for decades, the president joked "This is my inaugural moment."
Perhaps because the true purpose of the media event was to discuss the economy, the president repeatedly used the phrases "the bottom line" or "my bottom line," even when answering questions unrelated to fiscal matters.
When discussing the Middle East, Mr. Obama did not speak kindly of the Afghan government, saying it "seems very detached from what's going on in the surrounding community."
He said that what "we haven't seen is the kind of concerted effort to root out" safe havens where terrorists live in the country.
"This is a situation in which a region served as the base to launch an attack that killed 3,000 Americans," he said.
On a brighter note, the president expressed confidence, although 2009 will be a difficult year for the American economy, that recovery is within sight.
"If we get things right," he said, the economy could be back on track by 2010.
"Now, you know, I don't have a crystal ball," the president said. "And as I said, this is an unprecedented crisis. But my hope is that after a difficult year – and this year is going to be a difficult year – that businesses start investing again, start making decisions that, you know, in fact, there's money to be made out there."
The president also took a swing at a question about steroid use in Major League Baseball in light of Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez' admission that he had used performance enhancing drugs while he was still playing for another team. Mr. Obama said he hopes young baseball fans take a lesson from Rodriguez' disgrace.
"Our kids, hopefully, are watching and saying 'You know what? There are no short cuts.' That when you try to take short cuts, you may end up tarnishing your entire career. And your integrity's not worth it," he said.
What follows is a series of excerpts from the press conference.
Topic: The Economy
"If you delay acting on an economy of this severity, then you potentially create a negative spiral that becomes much more difficult for us to get out of. We saw this happen in Japan in the 1990s where they did not act boldly and swiftly enough, and as a consequence, they suffered what was caused 'The Lost Decade' where, essentially, for the entire 1990s, they did not see any significant economic growth.
"So what I'm trying to underscore is what the people in Elkhart, Ind. already understand, that this is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill recession. We are going through the worst economic crisis since The Great Depression. We've lost, now, 3.6 million jobs. But what's perhaps even more disturbing is that almost half of that job loss has taken place over the last three months, which means that the problems are accelerating instead of getting better.
Hotsheet Blog: Only Government Can Save The Economy
"Most economists – almost unanimously – recognize that even if philosophically you're wary of government intervening in the economy, when you have the kind of problem we have right now, that started on Wall Street, goes to Main Street, suddenly businesses can't get credit, they start paring back their investment, they start laying off workers, workers start pulling back in terms of spending, that when you have that situation, that government is an important element of introducing some additional demand into the economy. We stand to lose – the figure that we initially came up with of approximately $800 billion was put forward. That wasn't just some random number that I fluffed out of out of a hat. That was Republican and Democratic, conservative and liberal economists that I spoke to who indicated that given the magnitude of the crisis and the fact that it's happening worldwide, it's important for us to have a bill of sufficient size and scope that we can save, or create, four million jobs."
"I said during the campaign that Iran is a country that has extraordinary people, extraordinary history and traditions, but that its actions, over many years now have been unhelpful when it comes to promoting peace and prosperity both in the region and around the world, that their attacks – or their financing of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, the bellicose language that they've used toward Israel, their development of a nuclear weapon – or their pursuit of a nuclear weapon – that all those things create the possibility of destabilizing the region and are not only contrary to our interests but I think are contrary to the interests of international peace. What I have also said is that we should take an approach with Iran that employs all of the resources at the United States disposal, and that includes diplomacy, and so my national security team is currently reviewing our existing Iran policy, looking at areas where we can have constructive dialogue, where we can directly engage with them, and 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.
Hotsheet Blog: Iran Diplomacy Possible Within Months
"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. There will be clear objectives that we have in these but there is a clear possibility of a relationship of mutual respect and progress. And I think that if you look at how we've approached the Middle East, my designation of George Mitchell as a special envoy to help deal with the Arab-Israeli situation, some of the interviews that I've given, it indicates 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."
"The American people… understand that there have been a lot bad habits built up here in Washington and it's going to take time to break down some of those bad habits. You know, when I made a series of overtures to the Republicans, going over to meet with both Republican caucuses – you know, putting Republicans in my cabinet, something that is unprecedented, making sure that they were invited here to the White House to talk about the economic recovery plan, all those were not designed simply to get some short-term votes. They were designed to try to build up some trust over time. And I think that as I continue to make these overtures, over time, hopefully, that will be reciprocated. But understand the bottom line that I've got right now, which is what's happening to the people of Elkhart, Ind. and what's happening across the country. I can't afford to see Congress play the usual political games.
Hotsheet Blog: Bipartisanship Is Still Possible
"What we have to do right now is deliver for the American people. So my bottom line, when it comes to the recovery package, is send me a bill that creates or saves four million jobs. Because everybody has to be possessed with a sense of urgency about putting people back to work, making sure the folks are staying in their homes, that they can send their kids to college. That doesn't negate the continuing efforts that I'm going to make, and listen and engage with my republican colleagues and hopefully, the tone that I've taken, which has been consistently civil and respectful, will pay some dividends over the long-term. There are going to be areas where we disagree and there are going to be areas where we agree. As I said, the one concern I've got on the stimulus package in terms of the debate and listening to some of what's been said in Congress is that there seems to be a set of folks who – I don't doubt their sincerity, who just believe that we should do nothing. Now, if that's their opening position or their closing position in negotiations, then we're probably not going to make much progress because I don't think that's economically sound, and I don't think that's what the American people expect, for us to stand by and do nothing. There are others who recognize that we've got to do a significant recovery package, but they're concerned about the mix of what's in there. And if they're sincere about it, then I'm happy to have conversations about this tax cut versus that tax cut or this infrastructure project versus that infrastructure project, but what I have been concerned about is some of the language that's been used suggesting that this is full of pork, and this is wasteful government spending, so on and so forth. First of all, when I hear that from folks who presided over a doubling of the national debt, then – you know, I just want them to not engage in some revisionist history. I inherited the deficit that we have right now, and the economic crisis that we have right now.
"Number two is that although there are some programs in there that I think are good policy, some of them aren't job creators. I think it's perfectly legitimate to say that those programs should be out of this particular recovery package and we can deal with them later. But when they start characterize something as pork without acknowledging that there are no earmarks in this package, something, again, that was pretty rare over the last eight years, then you get a feeling that maybe we're playing politics instead of actually trying to solve problems for the American people."
Topic: The Wars In Iraq and Afghanistan
"We got reports that four American service members have been killed in Iraq today and obviously our thoughts and prayers go out to the families. I've said before that people have asked me 'When did it hit you that you are now president?' And what I told them was the most sobering moment is signing letters to the families of our fallen heroes. It reminds you of the responsibilities that you carry in this office and the consequences of decisions that you make. Now, with respect to the policy of opening up media to loved ones being brought back home, we are in the process of reviewing those policies in conversations with the Department of Defense. So I don't want to give you an answer now before I've evaluated that review and understand all the implications involved.
Hotsheet Blog: No Timeline On Afghanistan
"With respect to Afghanistan, this is going to be a big challenge. I think because of the extraordinary work done by our troops and some very good diplomatic work done by Ambassador Crocker in Iraq, we just saw an election in Iraq that went relatively peacefully and you get a sense that the political system is now functioning in a meaningful way. You do not see that yet in Afghanistan. They've got elections coming up, but effectively the national government seems very detached from what's going on in the surrounding community. In addition, you've got the Taliban and al Qaeda operating in the Fatah and these border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan and what we haven't seen is the kind of concerted effort to root out those safe havens that would ultimately make our mission successful. So we are undergoing a thorough review, not only is general Petraeus, now the head of CentCom conducting his own review, he's now working in concert with the special envoy that I sent over, Richard Holbrooke, one of our top diplomats, to evaluate a regional approach. We are going to need more effective coordination of our military efforts with diplomatic efforts with development efforts with more effective coordination with our allies in order for us to be successful. The bottom line, though, and I just want to remember the American people, because this is going to be difficult, this is a situation in which a region served as the base to launch an attack that killed 3,000 Americans. And this past week I met with families of those who were lost in 9/11, a reminder of the costs of allowing those safe havens to exist. My bottom line is that we cannot allow al Qaeda to operate. We cannot have those safe havens in that region. And we're going to have to work both smartly and effectively but with consistency in order to make sure that those safe havens don't exist. I do not have yet a timetable for how long that's going to take. What I know is I'm not going to allow al Qaeda or bin Laden to operate with impunity, planning attacks on the U.S. Homeland.
Topic: Steroids In Baseball
"I think it's depressing news on top of what's been a flurry of depressing items when it comes to Major League Baseball. And if you're a fan of Major League Baseball, I think it tarnishes an entire era to some degree. And it's unfortunate, because I think there are a lot of ball players who played it straight. And the thing I'm probably most concerned about is the message that it sends to our kids.
Hotsheet Blog: A-Rod News Tarnishes An Era
What I'm pleased about is Major League Baseball seems to finally be taking this seriously, to recognize how big of a problem this is for the sport, and that our kids, hopefully, are watching and saying 'You know what? There are no short cuts.' That when you try to take short cuts, you may end up tarnishing your entire career. And your integrity's not worth it. That's the message I hope is communicated."
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