Time for some medical miracles

President Obama has signed an executive order overturning a signature initiative of the Bush administration — an 8-year-old ban on federal funding for research on embryonic-stem-cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001.

Public expectations for stem-cell research are high, perhaps impossibly high, and Obama began his White House announcement on a cautionary note: "At this moment, the full promise of stem-cell research remains unknown, and it should not be overstated."

Almost immediately, he held forth the possibility that with new federal backing stem-cell research could "regenerate a severed spinal cord and lift someone from a wheelchair; to spur insulin production and spare a child from a lifetime of needles; to treat Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease and others that affect millions of Americans and the people who love them."

That is a tall order and raises hopes that cruelly may never be fully realized, but the weight of opinion among medical researchers is that research based on stem cells, which can develop into any kind of tissue or cell in the body, replacing nerves and organs damaged by disease or injury, is their most promising avenue of inquiry.

President George W. Bush had attempted a compromise in an acrimonious debate over the federal role in stem-cell research. Congress had earlier banned any use of federal funds to create embryos for research; the researchers typically get the days-old embryos from private fertility clinics where the excess embryos were destined to be destroyed.

Bush approved federally funded research on 21 existing lines of stem cells, but researchers said the lines were inadequate. With Obama’s order, the government can fund stem-cell research as long as the money isn’t used to create embryos.

Over the eight years, the research moved into private labs or overseas, where some laboratories made wildly overstated claims of their progress. With federal involvement, domestic research at least will be held to some account.

In a sense, the stem-cell debate is a stalking horse for a much more serious issue — human cloning. Obama called it "dangerous, profoundly wrong" with "no place in our society, or any society."

Federal funding and federal oversight make it much less likely that a renegade researcher would try.

It’s just a jump to the left

In light of concerns about President Obama’s budget — in particular, that it will lead us down a slippery slope toward European-style, nanny-state socialism — I considered the ways in which American citizens of a certain age were systematically trained to hate Soviet-style communism, as well as socialism and most ideas that lie toward the left end of the political spectrum.

My eighth-grade government text was a thin volume entitled "What You Should Know about Communism and Why." The cover portrays a parade of self-propelled missile launchers moving ominously through Red Square while faceless masses look on.

In some respects the book was a reasonable depiction of the history of communism and of life in Soviet Russia. But it was also classic Cold War propaganda, intended to indoctrinate, as well as inform. Subtle digs abound: "…Marx seldom earned any money of his own."

By the time I reached high school, the Cuban Missile Crisis had come and gone, and the U.S.S.R. and China were firmly established as the enemy.

In some ways, the threat was real. But it was also more mutual than we generally acknowledge and much more complicated than portrayed in civics textbooks and on television.

Nevertheless, the communist threat drove our foreign policy through the Cold War of the 1960s and served as a backdrop for the Vietnam War and for an immense arms buildup that retains its momentum today. In some neighborhoods you can still find old fallout shelters, monuments to the hope of surviving a nuclear exchange.

As it turned out, communism wasn’t such a great idea, after all, but it served as a solid fulcrum for some of the leverage that Reagan-era conservatives used to shove our political center so far to the right that the modern social democracies of Western Europe look almost as suspicious to us as old-style Bolshevism.

In fact, the term "socialism" is so tainted that it might be useful to commend the word itself to the so-called ash heap of history and find a new one to describe a communitarian approach to resolving some of the modern problems that can be treated only with collective action. We hear a lot of lip service for "working together," but in the end we often fall for appeals to our individualism and self-reliance and to the idea that there’s something inherently un-American about depending on the government to "take care of us."

Putting the matter in those terms doesn’t sound very attractive, which is why defenders of the status quo are so fond of using them. But consider, for example, health care: for many Americans it represents the most precarious element of their lives. The uninsured have to depend on the hope of never getting very sick, and even many of the nominally insured are threatened with high premiums and huge deductibles.

Many Americans — including many who already have decent health insurance — would like to reform the way we view health care, to consider it less a commodity than an essential of a good American life that should be available to everyone. Americans who are committed to keeping things the way they are have a long history of left-bashing to depend on, and they overstate the perceived shortcomings of the public health care systems of the rest of the Western world.

Of course, this type of column usually attracts a lot of e-mail inviting me to move to France. But government in our country has functioned far more effectively than the naysayers would have us believe. If we desire a health care system better than France’s, American ingenuity is likely to rise to the occasion, and the same can be said for many other modern problems that can never be solved by individuals alone.

In America, more than anywhere else, having confidence in the government is identical to having confidence in ourselves. A little movement toward the left — without using the "S-word" — could be healthy for everyone.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu)

Obama rolling back Bush limits on stem-cell research

President Barack Obama is ending former President George W. Bush’s limits on using federal dollars for embryonic stem cell research, with advisers calling the move a clear signal that science — not political ideology — will guide the administration.

Obama was to sign an executive order and memo Monday in an East Room ceremony, a long-promised move that would fill a campaign promise. Advisers said it was part of a broader declaration on science that would guide the administration’s policies on matters ranging from renewable energy to climate change.

"I would simply say this memorandum is not concerned solely — or even specifically — with stem cell research," said Harold Varmus, chairman of the White House’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. He said it would address how the government uses science and who is advising officials across federal agencies.

Bush limited taxpayer money for embryonic stem cell research to a small number of stem cell lines that were created before Aug. 9, 2001. Many of those faced drawbacks. Hundreds more of such lines — groups of cells that can continue to propagate in lab dishes — have been created since then. Scientists say those newer lines are healthier and better suited to creating treatments for diseases, but they were largely off-limits to researchers who took federal dollars.

"We’ve got eight years of science to make up for," said Dr. Curt Civin, whose research allowed scientists to isolate stem cells and who now serves as the founding director of the University of Maryland Center for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. "Now the silly restrictions are lifted."

The proposed changes do not fund creation of new lines, nor specify which existing lines can be used. They mean that scientists, who until now have had to rely on private donations to work with these newer stem cell lines, can apply for government money for the research, just like they do for studies of gene therapy or other treatment approaches.

At the same event, the president planned to announce safeguards through the National Institutes of Health so science is protected from political interference.

"We view what happened with stem cell research in the last administration is one manifestation of failure to think carefully about how federal support of science and the use of scientific advice occurs," Varmus said.

Embryonic stem cells are master cells that can morph into any cell of the body. Scientists hope to harness them so they can create replacement tissues to treat a variety of diseases — such as new insulin-producing cells for diabetics, cells that could help those with Parkinson’s disease or maybe even Alzheimer’s, or new nerve connections to restore movement after spinal injury.

Bush and his supporters said they were defending human life; days-old embryos — typically from fertility-clinic leftovers otherwise destined to be thrown away — are destroyed for the stem cells.

The long-promised move will allow a rush of research aimed at one day better treating, if not curing, ailments from diabetes to paralysis — research that has drawn broad support, including from notables such as Nancy Reagan, widow of the late Republican President Ronald Reagan, and the late Christopher Reeve.

The move also will highlight divisions within the Republican Party, now in the minority and lacking votes in Congress to stop Obama.

Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, said the focus should be on the economy, not on a long-simmering debate over stem cells.

"Frankly, federal funding of embryonic stem cell research can bring on embryo harvesting, perhaps even human cloning that occurs," he said Sunday on CNN’s "State of the Union." "We don’t want that. … And certainly that is something that we ought to be talking about, but let’s take care of business first. People are out of jobs."

Health care reform fight will test Obama’s skills

Embarking on arguably his most complex political fight yet, President Barack Obama is using skills honed during his presidential campaign and lessons learned from past failures to try to overhaul the health care system.

It’s a feat none before him has achieved. As such, it would pay monumental dividends for a popular new president looking for history-making accomplishments ahead of his likely 2012 re-election campaign.

"Nothing is harder in politics than doing something now that costs money in order to gain benefits 20 years from now," Obama acknowledged last week.

That’s exactly what he’s trying as he seeks to ensure health care for everyone in a country with the world’s costliest system and an estimated 48 million uninsured people.

In office since Jan. 20, Obama has laid down an ambitious marker of one year to accomplish what the last Democratic president spectacularly failed to do in two. Bill Clinton made a series of tactical mistakes and was outmaneuvered by the opposition.

"We soon learned that nothing was off limits in this war and that the other side was far better armed with the tools of political battle: money, media and organization," Hillary Rodham Clinton, who led the health care fight for her husband, said in her 2003 memoir.

Obama is determined not to let that happen again.

He and his advisers, including several who served in Clinton’s White House, have studied what went wrong during 1993-1994, and are mindful to avoid the same miscalculations and missteps.

In concert with the White House, the Democratic National Committee and Obama’s campaign apparatus — Organizing for America, with its 13 million-strong e-mail list and 2 million "super volunteers" — will be intimately involved in promoting the plan as well as pressuring opponents. A paid TV ad campaign is all but certain.

Other advocates of revamping health care also have created a network of diverse coalitions. They are made up of strange bedfellows, such as labor unions and industry representatives, consumers and businesses. Others, like America’s Agenda: Health Care for All, are composed of insurers and drug makers, including some that fought Clinton’s plan. Those, too, now generally support an overhaul.

All are stockpiling cash and waiting to see how they will need to use it. Budgets and strategies are being closely held.

Both Democrats and Republicans expect an expensive fight. They say it will dwarf the $30 million that the Health Insurance Association of America spent on its TV commercials featuring Harry and Louise, a couple who talked fearfully about the Clinton plan as they paid bills at their kitchen table.

This time the mountain of money is expected to come from well-funded Obama backers trying to create a climate for success; some already are airing ads to drum up support for major changes in general.

Last week, in a sign of what’s to come, a group called Conservatives for Patients Rights began what it said would be a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to promote "free-market" reform rather than a "Big Government takeover."

A costly and complex proposition, revamping health care probably will be a much tougher task than anything Obama has faced so far as president.

It’s an issue that touches everyone in the United States. There are thickets of competing interests among patients, doctors, drug makers, insurers, labor, businesses and others.

Any plan must get through a Democratic-controlled Congress, where most lawmakers are up for re-election next year. Also, there’s an ideological fault line between Democrats and Republicans, and liberals and conservatives over the level of government involvement in health care.

Given all that, Democrats and Republicans contend Obama must use all tools available to ensure success.

"President Obama needs to invest everything he learned in winning the presidential campaign to get affordable health care for everybody. That’s what it’s going to take to trump the opposition," said Judy Feder, a senior health care official under Bill Clinton who now is at the Center for American Progress.

"It’s extremely important for him to use his political skills," agreed Bill Gradison, a former GOP congressman from Ohio who headed the insurance association when it launched the anti-Clinton commercials. Still, Gradison added: "Bill Clinton had those same skills in a lot of ways. Both are excellent communicators and had strong organizational and political support behind them. And both had control of Congress."

But Clinton, who won a three-way race in 1992 with only 43 percent of the popular vote, didn’t have the mandate from voters that Obama now has after winning 52 percent last fall. Clinton also didn’t come into office inheriting a crisis that presents opportunity for change the way Obama has with the recession.

Nevertheless, Obama administration officials acknowledge that the push for an overhaul — what Obama calls the linchpin to the country’s future financial health — will be complicated and contentious, even though the environment is now more amenable to it. The public overwhelmingly supports revamping the system, while businesses, insurers and drug makers that balked at Clinton in the 1990s are working with Obama.

For now at least, Obama is approaching health care much differently than did Clinton. He cut out Congress and interest groups, wrote his own legislation and threatened to veto any measure that didn’t contain what he wanted.

Obama has chosen to be flexible. He’s outlining broad principles and leaving the heavy lifting to Congress. He also is calling both allies and skeptics to the table to solicit ideas and advice. He’s created a Web site, http://www.healthreform.gov, to keep people in the loop. Obama also is indicating he’s willing to compromise.

Obama has secured $19 billion in the economic stimulus package to convert medical records to electronic formats and proposed a budget that projects spending $634 billion over 10 years toward universal health care. He devoted a significant chunk of his first address to Congress on the matter, and is dispatching surrogates to hold regional forums on the issue.

At some point, he almost certainly will travel across the country to take the proposal directly to the people, using his rhetorical skills and charisma to keep people on the side of change — and pressure lawmakers to get it done.

Lieberman sings a new tune on Obama

Sen. Joe Lieberman has changed his tune on Barack Obama.

After campaigning across the country for Republican John McCain in 2008 and attacking Obama as naive, untested and unwilling to take on powerful special interests, Lieberman now showers praise on the popular new Democratic president.

"He’s shown real leadership," Lieberman told The Associated Press in an interview. "Bottom line: I think Barack Obama, president of the United States, is off to a very good start."

The Connecticut independent, who faces re-election in 2012 in a state where Obama is popular, is eager to mend fences with Democrats still fuming over his criticism of Obama during the general election campaign.

Lieberman has applauded Obama’s national security team. He gushed over Obama’s "inspirational and unifying" inaugural. Lieberman even played a key role helping Obama win Senate passage of the economic stimulus plan.

As if to underscore the point, Lieberman has even clashed on the Senate floor with his pal McCain over the stimulus plan and a District of Columbia voting rights bill.

"I don’t think of Joe as the independent, I really think of Joe as a Democrat," said Lieberman’s home state colleague, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.

It’s a striking turnaround from the days when Lieberman was a fixture at McCain’s side during campaign stops. McCain had even considered making Lieberman, who nearly won the vice presidency on the Democratic ticket with Al Gore in 2000, his running mate.

"Do I think it is more principle or politics?" said Quinnipiac University Poll director Doug Schwartz of Lieberman’s moves. "It is a tough question."

Lieberman’s campaigning for McCain hurt him with Connecticut voters, particularly Democrats, Schwartz said.

Connecticut’s Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who is mentioned as a possible 2012 Senate Democratic candidate, would beat Lieberman by 28 points in a hypothetical matchup, a recent Quinnipiac poll showed.

Lieberman scoffed at any suggestion his embrace of Obama is more about political expediency than principle.

"I haven’t changed … I’ve always had a voting record that is more with the Democrats than with the Republicans," he said.

Many Democrats still chafe at how Lieberman needled Obama during his Republican National Convention speech with the line "eloquence is no substitute for a record."

Or when Lieberman cast the race as a choice between "one candidate, John McCain, who has always put the country first, worked across party lines to get things done, and one candidate who has not. Between one candidate who’s a talker, and the other candidate who’s the leader America needs as our next president."

Lieberman said he understands why he struck a nerve with Obama’s backers.

"We were in the middle of a campaign and we just plain disagreed … When I said those things not only did I believe them, but I believe looking at the records of the two people then, they were right," Lieberman said.

Lieberman said he never meant to suggest that Obama did not put his country first. Lieberman said his words were "too subject" to that interpretation and that he wishes he had spoken more clearly.

After the election at Obama’s urging, Senate Democrats decided not to punish Lieberman. They voted to let him keep his chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Obama was eager to strike a bipartisan tone for his presidency.

"President Obama played a very important role, he was very gracious," said Lieberman, who has since called Obama to thank him. "That obviously sealed the deal and I appreciated it a lot."

Liberal bloggers fumed. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, called it a "slap in the face" for millions of Americans who backed Obama.

But Democrats need Lieberman’s support in a chamber where it takes 60 of the 100 senators to overcome the threat of a Republican filibuster. They feared punishing Lieberman could drive him to the GOP. Lieberman remains a registered Democrat and caucuses with Senate Democrats.

Lieberman was re-elected in 2006 as an independent after losing his state’s Democratic primary to wealthy businessman Ned Lamont, an anti-war candidate.

Top Democrats like Dodd and Obama who had supported Lieberman in the primary instead backed party nominee Lamont in the fall race. Lieberman was disappointed that some old friends weren’t loyal to him.

"Joe is gonna do what’s in his interest politically because he had a near-death experience," said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who advised Lieberman in 2000. "Losing the party nomination has given him enormous freedom to think and to do as he wants."


On the Net:


To hell with the fruitcakes: Obama is an American

It is an article of faith in the loopier precincts of the Internet, impervious to evidence to the contrary, that Barack Obama is ineligible to be president of the United States because he is not a "natural born citizen" as the Constitution requires.

All this would be quite harmless, like believing in the Illuminati or alien abduction, except that the extra-chromosome true believers have taken to filing suit in the federal courts basically seeking to overturn the election.

For even the most ardent Obama opponents, this issue was settled during the campaign when the candidates posted his birth certificate on his Web site showing that he was born in Hawaii, and not Kenya as alleged, and Hawaii state officials vouched for the authenticity of the document.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson, showing refreshing proof that the cause of common sense is not totally dead in our judicial system, had had enough and threw out one such suit, saying, "This case, if it were allowed to proceed, would deserve mention in one of those books that seek to prove the law is foolish and that America has too many lawyers with not enough to do."

He noted that over the two years of the Obama campaign the issue of his citizenship "was raised, vetted, blogged, texted, twittered and otherwise massaged by America’s vigilant citizenry" without ever producing a shred of evidence that he was anything but natural born.

Robertson ordered the plaintiff’s attorney to show cause why he shouldn’t have to pay Obama’s legal fees for filing a frivolous and harassing case. The prospect of having to part with actual cash may serve to get these cases out of the courtroom and back in wing nut land where they belong.

Obama on stimulus: ‘We did the right thing’

While aknowledging an "astounding" number of job losses in February, President Barack Obama told critics of his $787 billion economic recovery plan Friday that it is saving jobs and said, "I know we did the right thing." He suggested that critics talk to 25 police recruits in Ohio’s capital city who owe their jobs to stimulus spending and "talk to the teachers who are still able to teach our children because we passed this plan."

During a graduation ceremony for the police recruits, he also noted "the nurses who are still able to care for our sick and the firefighters and first responders who are still able to keep our communities safe."

News that 651,000 jobs were lost in February brings to "an astounding 4.4 million" the number of jobs lost since the recession began, Obama said. The unemployment rate spiked to 8.1 percent.

But Obama touted the 114th police recruit class as proof that the stimulus plan, which drew scant Republican support in Congress, is paying dividends.

"I look at these young men and women, I look into their eyes and I see their badges today, and I know we did the right thing," Obama said, the recruits seated behind him on stage.

He said the police recruits had faced a future of joblessness, the same "future that millions of Americans still face right now."

"Well, that is not a future I accept for the United States of America," Obama said, explaining why he signed the stimulus bill on Feb. 17.

The recruit class was laid off in January before they could even start walking the beat. Mayor Michael Coleman, a Democrat, blamed city budget problems.

But last week Coleman announced that the Justice Department had told the city it would get $1.25 million in stimulus funds to cover the officers’ salaries through Dec. 31.

The recruits were rehired using money from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program. The stimulus bill included $2 billion for that program, and the money is being delivered to local departments by a predetermined formula.

Breann Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Rep. Pat Tiberi, one of eight Ohio Republicans who voted against the stimulus, noted that the money that saved the recruits’ job will run out next year. Coleman hasn’t said how he’ll pay the officers’ salaries after that.

Gonzalez said Tiberi "is thrilled" that these officers were hired, but that the question of how to pay for them will confront the city again come January.

"This stimulus represents a very temporary solution to an even larger problem," she said.

The trip was Obama’s first as president to Ohio, which he won in the November election.


Associated Press writers Devlin Barrett and Matt Apuzzo in Washington and Andrew Welsh-Huggins and Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.


On the Net:

White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov

Contract reform: Welcome and overdue

President Obama seems to be announcing new initiatives at the rate of one a day, but this latest program is much needed and long overdue.

He has instructed his budget director, Peter Orszag, to conduct a governmentwide review, due to be completed in September, of federal contracting and procurement procedures with the goal of cutting down on fraud and waste by adding more competition and accountability.

The review will be supplemented by contract-reform legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich.

The Bush administration, with an excess of suspicion of government and faith in the private sector, had a policy of outsourcing government functions, often on no-bid contracts.

In eight years, procurement spending increased by 155 percent to almost $532 billion while the number of federal employees monitoring those contracts increased by only 10 percent.

Said Obama: "Far too often, the spending is plagued by massive cost overruns, outright fraud and the absence of oversight and accountability. In some cases, contracts are awarded without competition; in others, contractors actually oversee other contractors."

The defects of this kind of unsupervised outsourcing were most evident in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Justice Department has under way more than 100 investigations into alleged contract fraud relating to the wars.

Obama believes that simply by tightening the rules for awarding contracts the government can save $40 billion a year. This is probably optimistic because honesty and efficiency have their own cost.

It’s all very well to talk about small government and cutting the bureaucracy, but without a well-trained corps of federal contract analysts and procurement specialists we’re fated to repeat the cycle that got us where we are now.

Is it Obama’s economy now?

Barack Obama took the oath of office in January amid a deepening recession, rising unemployment and a volatile and declining stock market. All of those challenges were present before Obama entered the White House. But more than a month into his presidency, the economy seems to have worsened.

In the interim, President Obama pushed for and eventually signed a $780 billion economic stimulus bill, offered a home mortgage rescue plan, and gave a nationally televised address to Congress in which he promised to boost federal spending on health, education and welfare programs.

Are President Obama’s policies helping or hurting economic recovery? Is George W. Bush entirely to blame for the economy? Or is it Obama’s economy now? RedBlueAmerica columnists Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk weigh in.


The faltering U.S. economy officially became Obama’s when he signed the monstrosity of a "stimulus" bill on February 17. The legislation, which is loaded with plenty of pork of debatable "stimulative" value, is unlikely to spur economic recovery except for favored special interests, public-employee unions and government contractors. The economy will turn around eventually, but it won’t be the result of this insane spending package.

In fact, the stimulus and other Obama fiscal policies will likely have a negative effect long-term. It’s possible to track the declining confidence in U.S. markets alongside the Obama administration’s efforts to turn the economy around. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 7,933 on Feb. 12, the day before Congress passed the stimulus. The Dow closed at 6,875 on Wednesday — roughly a 15-percent drop in less than three weeks. Some stimulus!

President Obama waved off the precipitous drop in the stock market as nothing more than the usual "fits and starts" and offered a bit of investment advice. "What you’re now seeing is … profit and earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal if you’ve got a long-term perspective on it," he said.

By the way, it’s "price/earnings ratios" not "profit and earning ratios." But that’s a small gaffe. Besides, presidents aren’t financial advisors.

Trouble is, the markets know that and have responded accordingly. The Obama administration’s actions over the past month only underscore this fundamental political truth: Presidents can do little to help the economy, but they can do plenty to hurt it.


Conservatives started calling Barack Obama "The Messiah" during the campaign in a futile effort to puncture the candidate’s popularity. Now it seems the GOP really does want the country to judge the president in messianic terms: If he can’t revive a dying economy in three days, he’s a fraud. Poppycock.

Nobody with a 401(k) likes to watch the stock market’s decline. But it’s clear that Republicans are playing politics with the economy. When the Dow plummeted 300 points on Monday, conservative commentators proclaimed it proof the market wasn’t happy with President Obama’s policies. Never mind that the drop came the same day insurance giant AIG reported fourth-quarter losses of $61.7 billion. That’s hardly the president’s fault, but the GOP is trying to pin it on him anyway.

The truth is that Republicans are rushing to call the president a failure because it’s too soon to know if he’ll be a success. The stimulus bill has been approved, yes, but it will take more than a few days for its effects to be felt: Workers, for example, won’t see their tax cuts until April 1. That feels glacially slow in uncertain economic times, but it’s blazingly fast for the federal government.

Barack Obama’s presidency will be judged on his handling of the economy. That’s only fair. But his presidency is only a few weeks old, and the problems he seeks to fix were years, even decades, in the making. Give him a little more time.

(Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis blog daily at http://www.infinitemonkeysblog.com and http://politics.pwblogs.com/.)

Obama promises to take axe to government waste

President Barack Obama on Wednesday promised to save American taxpayers 40 billion dollars a year by slashing waste in government contracting, with a special eye on bloated spending on defense.

"I reject the false choice between securing this nation and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars," Obama said on a day when he signed a presidential memorandum reforming the contracting system across the entire government.

"In this time of great challenges, I recognize the real choice between investments that are designed to keep the American people safe and those that are designed to make a defense contractor rich," Obama said.

The president’s promise to clean up contracting was in line with his pledge to cut the soaring federal budget deficit in half by the end of his mandate in 2013.

As Obama spoke, he was flanked by his former Republican rival for the presidency, Senator John McCain, who is a hawkish opponent of wasteful spending in the Pentagon, and scours legislation for lawmaker’s pet projects.

Obama honed in on runaway Pentagon spending, vowing that "the days of giving defense contractors a blank check are over," and highlighted work by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to overhaul military procurement at the Pentagon.

Cost overruns have been especially apparent in Iraq, where "too much money has been paid out for services that were never performed, buildings that were never completed, companies that skimmed off the top," he said.

The Bush administration attracted fierce criticism over "no bid" contracts which awarded work in the war zone to favored companies by the government — without competitive tendering — a practice Obama vowed to stop.

"Over the last eight years, government spending on contracts has doubled to over half a trillion dollars," Obama said.

"Far too often, the spending is plagued by massive cost overruns, outright fraud, and the absence of oversight and accountability. In some cases, contracts are awarded without competition.

"We are spending money on things that we don’t need, and we’re paying more than we need to pay. And that’s completely unacceptable."

Obama, who has pledged to make two trillion dollars in budget cuts over the next 10 years, also used the occasion to take a swipe at the former president George W. Bush administration, which he accused of leaving him a "fiscal disaster"

"When we walked in the door we found a budget deficit of 1.3 trillion dollars, the largest in American history.

"This fiscal burden has been compounded by the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression."

The reforms require the White House budget director to work with cabinet members and agency heads to frame tough new guidelines on contracting work by the end of September.

Last month, Obama ordered a review into huge cost overruns on a new fleet of presidential helicopters, after McCain complained at the skyrocketing cost, raising concerns about how many military projects tend to come in well over budget.

"I don’t think that there’s any more graphic demonstration of how good ideas have cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money," McCain said at the time.

The US Government Accountability Office has found that last year the Defense Department’s weapons programs shot up 295 billion dollars from initial estimates, and were delayed by an average of 21 months.