President Barack Obama said Wednesday night that waterboarding authorized by former President George W. Bush was torture and that the information it gained from terror suspects could have been obtained by other means. “In some cases, it may be harder,” he conceded at a White House news conference capping a whirlwind first 100 days in office.
Obama also expressed much greater optimism now than a month ago that Chrysler could remain a “going concern,” possibly without filing for bankruptcy or with a “very quick” one. Obama did not say so, but Italian automaker Fiat Group SpA is expected to sign a partnership agreement with Chrysler LLC by Thursday as part of negotiations to keep the struggling U.S. automaker alive without bankruptcy protection.
The president gave assurance that one way or another Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal would not fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. He said he was confident “primarily, initially” because he believes Pakistan will handle the issue on its own. But he left the door open to eventual U.S. action to secure the weapons if need be.
The prime-time news conference was the third of Obama’s presidency and the first not dominated by a recession that has thrown millions of Americans out of work.
At a town-hall style meeting in Missouri earlier in the day, as well as in the White House East Room, Obama said progress has been made in rebuilding the economy, yet more remains to be done.
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“You can expect an unrelenting, unyielding effort from this administration to strengthen our prosperity and our security — in the second hundred days, and the third hundred days, and all the days after,” he said in opening his news conference.
He called on Congress to enact his ambitious all-at-once agenda, including education spending to produce a better-trained work force, greater support for renewable energy development, a high-priced system for companies to buy and sell rights to emit dangerous pollutants, a vast expansion of health insurance and new rules to rein in the riskiest Wall Street behavior.
Though Obama’s most notable legislative triumphs to date have been enacted on party-line votes, he said he remains eager for bipartisan cooperation with Republicans. But, he said, “I can’t sort of define bipartisanship as simply being willing to accept certain theories of theirs that we tried for eight years and didn’t work and the American people voted to change.”
Obama said Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s switch from Republican to Democrat wouldn’t automatically change the math on legislation because of Specter’s independence, nor give him a “rubber-stamp Senate.” Specter gave majority Democrats 59 votes in the Senate, pushing them one step closer to the 60 needed to overcome Republican filibusters.
But the party change would “liberate” Specter to cooperate with Democrats more than he has in the past, Obama said.
The president also said he was “absolutely convinced” he had acted correctly in banning tough interrogation techniques including waterboarding, which simulates drowning, and in making public the Bush administration memos detailing their use on terrorist suspects. “Not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees … but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.”
Obama has come under heavy criticism for his actions from former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republicans. They have urged Obama to release memos they say will show the tough methods were successful in obtaining information.
Obama told reporters he has read the documents Cheney and others are referring to but said they are classified and declined to discuss their details. In a White House exchange with House Republican leader John Boehner last week, Obama said the record was equivocal.
The news conference lasted an hour and covered topics ranging from the outbreak of swine flu — which Obama referred to as the H1N1 virus, evidently in deference to U.S. pork producers — to abortion and the recent flare-up in violence in Iraq.
Alongside wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the situation in Pakistan has grown more ominous in recent days as a resurgent Taliban shows signs of strength.
Obama said he was “gravely concerned,” not about an immediate takeover of the country by the Taliban but because he said the Pakistani government seems unable to deliver basic services and thus gain the kind of public loyalty necessary to survive against challenges over the long term.
The president also gave his strongest public admission yet that the overhaul of the current immigration system that he once promised to tackle in his first 100 days will not happen in 2009. He focused instead on the “key administrative steps” he has directed officials to take this year that he said would demonstrate competence to opponents in the contentious debate.
Obama defended his administration’s continuation of Bush’s policy that the president has inherent and unchecked power to shield national security information from disclosure — the so-called “state secrets” doctrine. Obama said that court filings came too quickly in his presidency to go in a new direction but that his advisers are already working on ways to have the doctrine modified, even while he said certain cases will require its use.
With the government now functioning as a major shareholder in financial institutions as well as, possibly, auto companies such as General Motors, Obama also said Washington has no intention of micromanaging private businesses or of remaining an investor for any longer than necessary. “I’ve got more than enough to do,” he said.
But the president said the government does have the right, on behalf of the taxpayers, to “scrutinize what’s being proposed and make sure that their money is not just being thrown down the drain.”
Obama’s intensive schedule marking his 100th day in office demonstrated the degree to which the administration saw both possibility and peril in the milestone — a symbolic evaluation point since Franklin Roosevelt took office in the depths of the Great Depression in 1933.
Presidential aides have derided it as a media-created “Hallmark holiday” in which the White House participates reluctantly. But they also recognize it is a time frame by which all modern presidents are judged, at least initially, and which can produce negative narratives that dog administrations for years. So the White House heartily embraced the marker, making high-level Obama advisers available anywhere they were needed over the last week and crafting the president’s day to maximum advantage.
The opening act of the Obama presidency has been head-turning, not only for the dire times in which he took office but his flurry of activity.
The reward: strong public backing despite a still-staggering economy. An Associated Press-GfK poll shows that 48 percent of Americans believe the United States is headed in the right direction — the first time in years that more people than not expressed optimism for a brighter future.
But most of what Obama has done so far, as would be expected for little more than three months, amounts to no more than a down payment.