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Obama: "Back From The Brink" On Economy

President Barack Obama defended his Supreme Court pick and painted an upbeat vision of the economy Wednesday as he addressed major donors to the Democratic Party in Beverly Hills.

"It's safe to say we have stepped back from the brink, that there is some calm that didn't exist before," Mr. Obama told donors and celebrities at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. He said the stimulus bill that Congress passed three months ago is starting to improve the economy.

He also addressed critics of his choice of federal judge Sonia Sotomayor for the nation's highest court. Sotomayor has stirred some controversy by saying her experiences as a Latina from a struggling, immigrant family make her more sensitive to certain cases than more privileged people might be.

"A lot has been made about the Supreme Court and my criteria," President Obama said in a 20-minute speech to 250 of the night's biggest donors. "I want people who have a common touch, who have a sense of what it's like to struggle."

He praised Sotomayor because she knows that "every once in a while, people need a hand up."

The president mixed optimism with caution as he thanked those who backed his campaign. He acknowledged that his young administration has had "some fits and starts."

"I've made some mistakes, and I guarantee you I will make some more," he said.

But Mr. Obama said his November campaign victory and his administration's start has convinced many Americans they don't need to feel cynical about their government or society. There is now a sense "that maybe that kind of idealism is fashionable after all," he said.

Tickets to Wednesday night's two-tiered event ranged from $1,000 to $15,200. The lower prices bought access to a ballroom where Mr. Obama made a second, much shorter speech.

The bigger donors attended a dinner, where Obama spoke first, hosted by movie and music executives Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.

Aides said the Democratic National Committee will net more than $3 million from the night's events, even though some ticket prices were slashed to $1,000 from $2,500 when initial sales were slow.

President Obama had no other events in California and planned to return to Washington early Thursday.

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
While many Obama supporters waved and cheered as his motorcade approached the Beverly Hilton, some protesters decried Tuesday's California Supreme Court ruling that upheld the voter-approved gay marriage ban.

Some of them also urged President Obama to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays.

Mr. Obama said he could not hear the protesters' exact words, but he agreed with one who shouted that the president should keep his promises.

Politics Hover As President Touts Stimulus Efforts

Mr. Obama's two-day western trip was overtly political, bracketed by big-dollar Democratic fundraisers in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. When he turned to the economy, sandwiched between the fundraising events during a stop at Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base, he focused on the issue most likely to determine next year's elections, according to analysts in both parties.

Mr. Obama's aides had mocked reporters for making a fuss over his first 100 days in office. But the president was eager to assess the first 100 days of the stimulus package. He gave it high marks.

The stimulus has "saved or created nearly 150,000 jobs," he said, including jobs "building solar panels and wind turbines, making homes and buildings more energy-efficient."

The White House job claims are difficult to verify because they are based on estimates of how bad the economy might have been without the stimulus rather than actual employment data. The country has lost 1.3 million jobs since February, a figure the Obama administration says would have been far higher if not for the recovery effort.

Speaking to about 400 Air Force personnel and families at Nellis, near Las Vegas, President Obama recited a now-familiar report card: 95 percent of working families have received tax cuts; 44 million Social Security recipients got a $250 bonus; unemployment benefits were extended.

"Other Americans have saved thousands by taking advantage of the tax credits" that the stimulus provides "for the purchase of a new home, a new fuel-efficient car, or energy-efficient cooling and heating systems, windows and insulation," Mr. Obama said in a warm hangar in the Nevada desert.

Not so fast, said House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio.

His office accused Mr. Obama of "pulling out all the stops to put a positive spin on the legislation." Boehner cited examples of state officials complaining about having trouble tapping the stimulus money, and economists questioning the administration's job projections.

The Republican Study Committee called the stimulus "the most wasteful, bloated spending bill in American history."

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
But Mr. Obama soldiered on, calling the stimulus "just the beginning." He announced more spending for renewable energy after touring a large field of solar panels at Nellis, which he called "the largest solar electric plant of its kind in the entire Western Hemisphere."

The sun-powered cells provide a quarter of the base's power needs, he said.

"That's the equivalent of powering about 13,200 homes during the day," the president said, and it will save the Air Force nearly $1 million a year.

"We can remain the world's leading importer of oil, or we can become the world's leading exporter of clean energy," he said.

Senator Reid, who faces a potentially tough re-election race next year, stuck to Mr. Obama's side throughout Wednesday's events and Tuesday night's fundraiser on his behalf at Caesars Palace on the casino-laden Las Vegas strip.

Mr. Obama told Nevadans the stimulus bill could not have passed Congress without Reid's work.

Leaving no thrust unparried, the National Republican Senatorial Committee quickly produced a Web ad denouncing Reid's fundraising ambitions. Its title? "Caesar."