Making his case in the most dire terms, President Barack Obama said that if Congress does not quickly pass an economic stimulus package, the nation will slip into a crisis so deep that “we may be unable to reverse” it.
“We can’t afford to wait. We can’t wait to see and hope for the best,” Obama said in Elkhart, Ind., a community reeling in job losses during the recession that has defined his young presidency. “We can’t posture and bicker and resort to the same failed ideas that got us in into this mess in the first place.”
Obama took the Washington debate Monday to a Midwest setting of everyday Americans, sought to build support for a massive infusion of government spending.
The popular president got at least one biting question during a candid question question-and-answer session, when a woman who identified herself as Tara took Obama to task for some of the tax lapses of his high-level nominees.
“You’ve come to our county and asked us to trust you, but those that you have appointed to your Cabinet are not trustworthy and can’t handle their own budget and taxes,” she said. Others in the town-hall session booed her, but Obama interjected: “No, no, this is a legitimate question.”
Obama said he has taken responsibility for the perception that some people shouldn’t have to play by the same rules as everyone else. Two nominees, including Tom Daschle, who was in line to be secretary of Health and Human Services, withdrew from consideration after revelations of delinquent taxes.
But he added that the mistakes were honest ones and said: “If you’re not going to appoint anybody who’s ever made a mistake in your life, then you’re not going to have anybody taking your jobs.”
On the economic crisis, Obama acknowledged that the legislation currently circulating in Congress is not beyond criticism, even poking fun at its authors at one point. Said Obama: “It’s coming out of Washington. It’s going through Congress.”
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“You know, look, it’s not perfect,” the president conceded. “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 the economy for the 21st century.”
The $827 billion Senate version of the plan was expected to pass the Senate on Tuesday. However, it remained to be seen how much GOP support it would draw. And it must be reconciled with the House version, which totaled $820 billion in spending and tax cuts. Senate and House negotiators were already preparing to deal, with the goal of a bill on Obama’s desk by the end of this week or beginning of next.
Obama went so far as to say he could not assure that every item in the stimulus plan would work as hoped. But he said he has no doubts that “delay or paralysis” in Washington will deepen the country’s crisis. He was speaking in northern Indiana, where the unemployment rate soared to 15.3 percent in one county in December, up a whopping 10.6 percentage points from December 2007. The region has been hammered by layoffs in the recreational vehicle industry.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” Obama said. “We’ve had a good debate. Now it’s time to act.”
At ease back in campaign mode, Obama took a range of questions after making an opening pitch for the stimulus package. He tried to put the economic legislation in real terms, saying it would help people through broader unemployment benefits, tax relief and job opportunities.
“Being here in Elkhart, I am more confident than ever that we will get where we need to be,” Obama said. “Because I know people are struggling, but I also know that folks here are good workers and good neighbors who step up, who help each other out, who make sacrifices when times are tough.”
Obama was also holding a prime-time news conference back at the White House on Monday and traveling Tuesday to Florida to another region hurting badly during the economic meltdown. The blitz shows that Obama and his advisers are worried about a looming Senate vote on the stimulus bill, which failed to gather meaningful Republican support during rare weekend debate. A key vote on the legislation was set in the Senate for Monday afternoon.
The town-hall sessions allow Obama to appeal directly to Americans for grass-roots backing of his plans.
Originally, aides had insisted that Obama’s time would be better spent remaining in Washington to shepherd the stimulus bill, rather than taking the more traditional presidential route of traveling around the country to pressure lawmakers from his bully pulpit.