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Obama Courts Public Support for Economic Stimulus Plan

February 9, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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President Obama traveled to Indiana Monday and planned a primetime news conference to build support for the stimulus bill that is nearing a final Senate vote. Reporters examine the next steps for the stimulus plan.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama pushed for an economic stimulus today on the road and on the air. He traveled to the Midwest and he planned a primetime news conference tonight. It came as the Senate stimulus bill cleared a crucial hurdle, 61-36, one more vote than needed. NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president chose Elkhart in northern Indiana to make his point that urgent action on the economy is the only option.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: Folks here in Elkhart and all across America need help right now. They can’t afford to keep on waiting for folks in Washington to get this done.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the past year, the Elkhart area’s unemployment rate tripled from layoffs in the recreational vehicle industry. It now stands above 15 percent, the nation’s highest.

Mr. Obama acknowledged to his town hall audience the stimulus bill will not be a cure-all, but he insisted it will do some good.

BARACK OBAMA: I’m not going to tell you that this bill is perfect. I mean, it’s coming out of Washington. It’s going through Congress.

You know, look, it’s not perfect, 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 this economy for the 21st century.

I can’t — I can’t tell you with 100 percent certainty that every single item in this plan will work exactly as we hoped. But what I can tell you is — I can say with complete confidence that endless delay or paralysis in Washington in the face of this crisis will only bring deepening disaster. I can tell you that doing nothing is not an option.

KWAME HOLMAN: But despite the applause, the audience had at least one skeptic. A woman asked why Americans should trust their new leader when some of his cabinet nominees could not be trusted to pay taxes.

BARACK OBAMA: Look, the — and I think that this is a legitimate criticism that people have made, because you can’t expect one set of folks to not pay their taxes when everybody else is paying theirs. So I think that’s a legitimate concern.

One of the things I’ve discovered is, 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.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president also answered Republican skeptics who complain too much of the bill has nothing to do with stimulus, including energy projects.

BARACK OBAMA: Now, I’ll be honest with you. Some of the critics of the plan have said that’s pork. I don’t understand their criticism.

Their basic argument is, well, that’s — you’re trying to make policy instead of just doing short-term stimulus. Well, my whole attitude is, if we’re going to spend billions of dollars to create jobs anyway, then why wouldn’t we want to create jobs in things like clean energy that create a better economic future for us over the long term? That’s just — that’s common sense to me.

Some Republican dissent remains

KWAME HOLMAN: Back in Washington, the Senate scheduled a critical vote late this afternoon to cut off debate and force a final vote on a compromise. Majority Leader Harry Reid and a group of moderates agreed to the deal on Friday night.

The cost now stands at $827 billion, after more than $100 billion was cut, mostly from the spending side. Roughly 40 percent of the bill now comes in the form of tax cuts.

Republican Arlen Specter helped broker the compromise. He spoke in Pennsylvania this morning before returning to Washington for the vote.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), Pennsylvania: The Washington Post said that the Republican moderates in the Senate were able to extract a high price. The speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, doesn't like the Republican alternative, so we must be doing something right.

And I don't like spending a lot of money, but it's an absolute necessity if we're to prevent the current serious recession we have from turning into a full-fledged depression like we had in 1929.

KWAME HOLMAN: Despite the revisions, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the price tag still was too high.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader: I'm sure that they believe that they've improved the bill. I don't think it's improved the bill enough to garner additional Republican support in the Senate.

I think the overwhelming majority of Republicans are very comfortable with where we are on this particular issue. I think that this is a poorly crafted bill. I think you could get the job done for about half of that, which would still be a very robust stimulus package by any historical standard.

KWAME HOLMAN: In today's Senate floor debate, Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi made clear the party's rank-and-file does not like the compromise, either.

SEN. MIKE ENZI (R), Wyoming: And today, my colleagues tell me, I'm supposed to be giddy that we're only spending $827 billion. Frankly, I've had enough of this bailout bologna. Members from both sides of the aisle are simply taking advantage of taxpayer shellshock.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Democrat Max Baucus, chair of the Finance Committee, said the critics have had enough time to make their case, now it's time to act.

SEN. MAX BAUCUS (D), Montana: The product before us today is the result of principled and bipartisan negotiation. This is a compromise across the aisle in the finest tradition of the Senate.

But we don't have much time, Madam President. We don't have much time to waste. We must act quickly to pass this substitute. We must work quickly the House in conference to reach consensus and put this bill on the president's desk without delay.

KWAME HOLMAN: Across the Capitol, House members on both sides sounded unhappy. Republicans said it's as bad or worse than the House bill they unanimously opposed.

REP. CATHY MCMORRIS RODGERS (R), Washington: Right now the United States Senate is still debating an $827 billion stimulus package. That's $7 billion more than what passed the House last week.

Not only is it more expensive, it actually does little to create jobs and grow the economy. It spends $300 million for new cars for the federal government. And we just learned today that some of this money will be used for golf carts. That's right, fancy golf carts. Unbelievable.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some Democrats said what the Senate took out should be put back in when the bill goes to conference to work out a final version.

DEL. DONNA CHRISTENSEN (D), Virgin Islands: We should keep much that the Senate put in and keep our provisions, even if it means a bill that may cost $900 billion, because it would have the dramatic impact our communities need today and build the strong foundation our nation needs for the future. The American people want and need change. Let's begin it with a robust American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

KWAME HOLMAN: Late today, the Senate did agree to limit debate, setting up a vote on the plan itself tomorrow. The president was expected to welcome the Senate action and press for a final bill by the weekend at his White House news conference tonight. It can be seen at 8 p.m. Eastern time on most PBS stations.

Obama tries to bolster support

Ellen Fitzpatrick
University of New Hampshire
Barack Obama is in the position of undertaking one of the largest attempts to stimulate the economy in modern American history, and he's doing it after four decades of a political culture that has turned around a bashing of the federal government.

JIM LEHRER: Judy Woodruff takes the story from there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now for three views on selling the stimulus plan, we turn to: Jeff Zeleny, White House reporter for the New York Times; Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire; and Rogan Kersh, professor of public service and associate dean at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service.

Thank you all for being with us.

And, Jeff Zeleny, to you first. It's not even three weeks into the presidency and already Mr. Obama is on the road, holding these town meetings, news conference. Why?

JEFF ZELENY, New York Times: One of the reasons is, he's trying to reclaim control of what he came to Washington to do. Once upon a time not that long ago, he said he wanted this economic stimulus bill on his desk upon arrival. He's had some trouble with that over the last three weeks.

What he is doing this week is trying to sort of reframe this debate, reboot his campaign/presidency, if you will, a little bit. He took questions today directly from voters. He'll do it again tomorrow in Florida. He is trying to show the Congress, the skeptical Congress, that he is president. And tonight he'll do the same thing with the American people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So this was not something they had planned to do. This was something that came up because things weren't working?

JEFF ZELENY: Right. This came up about mid- to late last week. There was a meeting of presidential advisers outside and inside on Wednesday evening. They got together, and they thought, "Look, we have to do something here."

And there was a big, rocky moment inside the White House last Wednesday when Tom Daschle, the president's nominee to be the White House health czar and health and human services secretary, when he fell by the wayside. There was a sense that they need to do something.

And the president was not looking all that presidential when he was going from agency to agency to agency. He sort of did not have the look even that he had during the campaign of confidence and whatnot. So they decided, "Look, we're going to send him on the road." And he went to Indiana today and Florida tomorrow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ellen Fitzpatrick, somebody who's been watching presidents for a while, smart thing for him to do?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, University of New Hampshire: Absolutely. I think it was essential. Barack Obama is in the position of undertaking one of the largest attempts to stimulate the economy in modern American history, and he's doing it after four decades of a political culture that has turned around a bashing of the federal government.

We've had very strong anti-federal government, anti-tax language and mobilization of extreme views on all sides and even in the middle around that message. And he is attempting to do something that flies in the face of that and to try to educate, re-educate the public that the federal government can actually do good on behalf of all the citizens.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rogan Kersh, what does modern political or presidential history tell us about how successful it's been in the past when presidents have tried to do this?

ROGAN KERSH, NYU's Wagner School of Public Service: Every president -- every modern president has tried it, Judy. Ronald Reagan was the most successful. He came into office facing a hostile Democratic Congress, promised a program of tax cuts. Congress fiddled, didn't move much on it. He went directly to the people, called going public, and got an overwhelming number of folks writing and calling their members of Congress.

These are elected officials. They listen to their constituents. And that helped Reagan get his tax cut through. It was known as the velvet steamroller plan after that, so successful was he.

Other presidents haven't had as much luck. Jimmy Carter tried to go to the people complaining about the malaise of a sort of slowed down presidency around economic and other issues, didn't have as much luck. So one has to use this carefully.

At the same time, Obama we know is a master of mobilization. He's the chief -- he's playing mobilizer-in-chief now. And I think he's going to have success, judging from the pictures today of making members of Congress listen, as your previous guests have been saying.

Obama's task is 'formidable'

Jeff Zeleny
The New York Times
Going forward on this, [the Democrats] weren't expecting quite as much pushback from the Republicans as they've received in the last couple months or couple weeks, rather. But they still think that they're right on the policy on this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Rogan Kersh, the factors that are in place today tend to work in his favor or not, as you compare him with previous presidents who've tried to do something like this?

ROGAN KERSH: I think, Judy, they work in his favor. One, we know he's a master mobilizer. He's able to arouse public opinion. It's almost ironic in a way that Obama -- unlike many politicians, Americans tend to not like politicians but like certain policies.

In this case, Americans still love Obama, judging from polls and surveys. They're just not sure about this policy. So he's going to go out and sell it, basically.

He's back in campaign mode. There are some people who say, "This guy shouldn't be out campaigning. He should be governing." The Republicans are campaigning against it, including his opponent in the fall, John McCain. The fact that he's back on the campaign trail, as it were, I think is a big plus for this White House. We know he does that well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Ellen Fitzpatrick, your point was he's up against -- I think you put it -- four decades of a political culture that's been set in stone, to a large extent.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes, I think it's an extremely formidable task that he has. And he's also in a situation where there's great American, you know, discomfort with the bank bailout and the feeling that the first legislation actually put into place by the Bush administration, the first efforts really was a bailout plan for big business. And he's following on the heels of that.

You know, FDR said at the beginning of the New Deal in one of his first fireside chats that to do nothing was asking the American people to bear more than they were able to bear. But it appears that the Republicans have been emboldened -- why, I don't know -- by circumstances to feel that they can be obstructionists and say, "We don't have a solution, but this isn't a good idea."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeff Zeleny, they're aware at the White House of what they're up against or are they? And were they? I mean, some are saying they seem to have been taken by surprise.

JEFF ZELENY: I think they are certainly aware of what they're up against. If they had any sort of high-flying moment from the campaign into the transition, I think those views were sort of changed by the series of pitfalls -- most small, some not so small -- that they've had with their nominees.

But going forward on this, they weren't expecting quite as much pushback from the Republicans as they've received in the last couple months or couple weeks, rather. But they still think that they're right on the policy on this.

And they say, "Look, we have Republicans with us." Tomorrow in Florida, in Fort Myers, Florida, when President Obama goes down there, he is going to be introduced by Gov. Charlie Crist, Republican of Florida, good friend of John McCain's.

This was a message that was announced by the White House today. It will be trumpeted tomorrow. This is a sign of their saying, "Look, a lot of Republicans are with us on this."

They also have Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Congressman Fred Upton of Michigan. Both of those two men were at the Super Bowl party at the White House a week or so ago, so some of these efforts on bipartisanship seem to be working, but to a small degree.

But they I think know what they're up against but want definitely to get this through in the House-Senate conference committee. It's not done yet. This is a tough week for them.

Obama striving for bipartisanship

Rogan Kersh
New York University
Saying he wants to get beyond the finger-pointing, beyond the bickering, we know Americans don't like that. The fact that he's leaving Washington and coming out to us, coming to the heartland, going to us, I think that plays very much in his favor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ellen Fitzpatrick, again, just quickly, how much harder is it for this president because he says he's also trying to go -- to move in a post-partisan direction, to get beyond the partisanship, to break through that?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think that's a very difficult problem. It's a box that he's put himself into. It's absolutely admirable that he has taken this approach.

On the other hand, it involves a courting of the Republicans that, given their repudiation and the repudiation of the Bush administration in the last election, one wouldn't imagine them to be as emboldened as the party has been in their opposition. But it may be that this effort on his part has led to some of that courage on their part and made it more difficult for Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back to you, Rogan Kersh -- and, again, just quickly -- how does the fact that the president has declared that he wants to get beyond partisanship, how does that affect his ability to win hearts and minds?

ROGAN KERSH: I mean, the fact that he claims he wants to get beyond the finger-pointing that Washington has more or less devolved into -- I mean, he's lost his honeymoon on Capitol Hill. It was a very, very -- perhaps a record short one. I think he still has it among Americans, again, judging from polls.

So saying he wants to get beyond the finger-pointing, beyond the bickering, we know Americans don't like that. The fact that he's leaving Washington and coming out to us, coming to the heartland, going to us, I think that plays very much in his favor.

Again, past presidents who've done this, especially early in their administrations, have tended to have a lot of luck with it, particularly if they are as able communicators as he is, and there aren't many who are that good. So I think this works in his favor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, finally, Jeff Zeleny, how do they measure success at the White House? They didn't get more than the three Republicans today on that stimulus procedural vote. How are they going to measure success going forward?

JEFF ZELENY: I think they will measure success to see how many Republicans they get in the House on final passage. Both the House and Senate Republicans have to sort of go home in these places like Michigan and Minnesota, Pennsylvania. So we'll see how many they get.

But, otherwise, measuring success, they have a lot of items on their plate. I think we'll hear from a lot more other than the economy tonight at the news conference. So this is one of the many things that they're working on. And some of them are eager to move on to the next topic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK, Jeff Zeleny, Rogan Kersh, Ellen Fitzpatrick, thank you all.