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President Barack Obama looked comfortable enough at his first White House news conference, but he sounded like a man fed up with one thing: Republicans lecturing him about his $820 billion economic stimulus plan.
Obama repeatedly reminded a national television audience that federal spending and deficits soared under George W. Bush’s presidency. He used the point to undermine GOP lawmakers opposing his plan and calling it too costly and wasteful.
"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."
"What I won’t do," he said at another point, "is return to the failed theories of the last eight years that got us into this fix in the first place."
An East Room, prime-time news conference is a powerful weapon, and the new president used it to enumerate the ways he differs from his predecessor.
Bush and his Republican allies in Congress relied too heavily on tax cuts, "especially tax cuts that are targeted to the wealthiest few Americans," Obama said, using past decisions to hit current critics who want more tax reductions and less spending in the stimulus plan. "We have tried that strategy time and time again, and it’s only helped lead us to the crisis we face right now," he said.
On foreign policy, Obama also stressed his departures from Bush’s ways.
"We do not torture" and "we abide by the Geneva Conventions," he said, alluding to the Bush administration’s controversial interrogation policies.
Defending his plans to send more U.S. troops into Afghanistan, Obama called it a region that "served as the base to launch an attack that killed 3,000 Americans." In other words, he was saying, Afghanistan is directly linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — unlike Iraq, which Bush invaded.
To be sure, Bush’s record gave Obama several opportunities for reviews and comparisons that needed little embellishment. But he indulged in some familiar tricks and dodges from the bully pulpit all the same.
At least three times he suggested that some unspecified number of his Republican critics want to "do nothing" about the economic crisis. GOP leaders consistently have said they want the government to act, but they think Obama’s plan is too heavy on spending and too light on tax cuts.
Asked why he used dire language earlier in the day in Indiana, suggesting the downward economic spiral could be irreversible, Obama did not answer directly, and emphasized his optimism. "I’m absolutely confident that we can solve this problem," he said, "but it’s going to require us to take some significant, important steps."
Obama alternated between "we" and "I" in describing tasks and challenges. "We averted catastrophe by passing the TARP legislation," he said of the massive financial bailout plan that Congress approved while Bush was still president. But without sufficient oversight, he said, "we didn’t get as big of a bang for the buck as we should have."
"My immediate task is making sure that the second half of that money, $350 billion, is spent properly," Obama said, seeming to shoulder the new burden himself. "That’s my first job."
In the news conference’s most poignant moment, he reminded Americans how heavy a burden the presidency can be.
"The most sobering moment is signing letters to the families of our fallen heroes," he said. "It reminds you of the responsibilities that you carry in this office and — and the consequences of the decisions that you make."
In perhaps his most upbeat moment, he reverted to "we" and the promise of better days.
"My hope is that after a difficult year," he said, "businesses start investing again" and "consumers start feeling that their jobs are stable and safe, and they start making purchases again, and, if we get things right, then, starting next year, we can start seeing significant improvement."
"I am the eternal optimist," Obama said in his final remarks, someone trying to provide the "civility and rational argument" that Americans want in their leaders.
Charles Babington covers the White House for The Associated Press.