Just in case you missed it, the president of the United States wants you to know that the country is in an unprecedented crisis, “the most profound economic emergency since the Great Depression,” and that he is on the job for you.
To that end, a stern-faced and grave-toned President Obama went before the American people last night to sell, sell, sell his economic stimulus package. His message, both in tone and in substance, was that we’re in trouble and Congress should stop futzing with his economic stimulus bill.
“I can't afford to see Congress play the usual political games,” he said Monday, in his first prime-time press conference. “What we have to do right now is deliver for the American people.”
It was a tour-de-force performance by a man who has already mastered the optics of the office. He was stern but optimistic, combative and conciliatory, all at once. He painted a bleak picture of the economy. He took questions and answered most of them. When he didn’t want to answer a question he didn’t. (e.g.: “Do you know of any countries in the Middle East with nuclear weapons?” asked one reporter. No answer.) On the economy, however, you could not shut him up: “If there's anyone out there who still doesn't believe this constitutes a full-blown crisis, I suggest speaking to one of the millions of Americans whose lives have been turned upside-down because they don't know where their next paycheck is coming from,” the president said.
It was a stark departure from last week, when Obama appeared momentarily besieged and off-message in the face of Republican attacks and the embarrassing tax troubles of several cabinet appointees. Back in control, Obama asserted himself, explaining in sometimes excruciating detail how he expects the different parts of the plan to work, and why some of those who dismiss its potential impact have no business talking about it.
“When it comes to how we approach the issue of fiscal responsibility, again, it's a little hard for me to take criticism from folks about this recovery package after they've presided over a doubling of the national debt,” Obama said. “I'm not sure they have a lot of credibility when it comes to fiscal responsibility.”
Gone was the conciliatory leader who began his presidency worshiping at the altar of bipartisanship. What was most interesting was the amount of fight in the guy, even as he was winning. The stimulus bill that the president so relentlessly defended and so seriously explained is on the verge of passage; it will deliver him a huge opening victory on the legislative side of the ledger. But even as the proposal cleared a procedural hurdle Monday in the Senate, on the strength of a tenuous alliance with three moderate Republicans, Obama was intent on reminding Americans that the current problems developed under the GOP’s watch.
“I just want them to not engage in some revisionist history,” he said. “I inherited the deficit that we have right now and the economic crisis that we have right now.”
While he also addressed issues related to Iran and Afghanistan and answered questions from whether Bush administration officials should be prosecuted for crimes to the use of steroids in Major League Baseball, the 55-minute press conference was a seminar of the economy—how bad it is, how it got that way and how to fix it.
“My bottom line when it comes to the recovery package is: Send me a bill that creates or saves 4 million jobs,” he said. “Because everybody has to be possessed with a sense of urgency about putting people back to work, making sure that folks are staying in their homes, that they can send their kids to college.”
It is exactly as Obama would have it. Earlier in the day, he traveled to a little Northern Indiana city called Elkhart, where unemployment rates soared from 4.7 percent last year to 15.3 percent today. According to the White House, Elkhart has the highest unemployment rate of any city in the country.
The president promised that he will continue to reach out to Republicans. He said that he regarded his overtures as a long-term investment that would eventually bear fruit.
“I am the eternal optimist. I think that, over time, people respond to civility and—and rational argument,” he said.
Two weeks in, optimism is an imperative, but the rest of that idea—civility and rational argument—well, that will be a much harder sell than the stimulus package.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.