At a moment when the President is more popular than most of hissignature policies, when weak-kneed Democrats threaten to bolt onhealthcare reform and hypocritical legislators have turned Iran’selection into a political football with little regard for theramifications of their rhetoric for Iranian protesters, Obama workedhard to use his fourth press conference to refocus and reset thepolitical debate.
Keeping his cool (even while sparring with a handful of snarkyreporters), Obama displayed moral realism and principled respect for thecourage, dignity and sovereignty of the Iranian people. He did whatIranian expert Trita Parsi advised: condemn violence, without pickingsides.
In his opening remarks, Obama did sound a more impassioned notethan at any time since the Iranian election in deploring the violence inthe streets of Tehran. “The United States and the internationalcommunity have been appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings andimprisonments of the last few days. I strongly condemn these unjustactions.” Yet Obama was careful to continue, ” I have made it clearthat the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republicof Iran, and is not at all interfering in Iran’s affairs….. TheIranian people can speak for themselves.” He referred again to Dr.Martin Luther King’s powerful words, “the arc of the moral universe islong, but it bends toward justice,” to affirm the belief–as he did inhis magnificent Cairo Speech— that “suppressing ideas never succeeds inmaking them go away…..those who stand up for justice are always on theright side of history.”
Questions about Iran, and criticism of the White House’s response, camerapid fire at the top, but much of the press conference pivoted to focuson the state of the economy, and the bruising fights ahead overregulatory reform and healthcare.
Asked about the Federal Reserve’s new role and new powers, Obama usedthe presser to support Ben Bernanke and the proposed expansion of theFed’s power to monitor systemic risk in the financial system. (Manylegislators and experts question giving new powers to an outlet thatfailed to do its job and is in thrall to the banks it’s supposed toregulate. The good news: the idea faces real pushback from legislators.As William Greider has reported, some 230 House members have endorsed ameasure to force GAO auditing of the Fed, “a small but important steptowards dismantling the central bank’s privileged secrecy andintimidating mystique.”) To his credit, Obama seemed more animated inmaking the case for a new Consumer Finance Protection Agency that wouldcurb subprime mortgages and credit card gouging among other abuses and,for the first time, give consumers and citizens a seat at the regulatorytable, however flawed.
On healthcare, Obama spoke eloquently of how “the status quo isunsustainable,” yet he refused to be pinned down to the specifics of apublic plan–even dodging a question about whether it wasnon-negotiable. Nor was he prepared to use his pulpit to start bangingsome heads in Congress –which, as Michael Tomasky argues, he’s going tohave to start doing if he wants to be the president “who passed acomprehensive healthcare bill” and not “one more carcass thrown on thepile by the powerful lobbies who’ve always opposed it.”
You have to wonder why some of these reporters sound like they’reventriloquists for Big Pharma or GOP Pollster Frank Luntz. We alreadyknow, as Senator Dick Durbin acknowledged about Congress, that the banksand their lobbyists “frankly own the place.” So, what do we as consumersand citizens get: not one question about why single-payer, Medicare-for-All, is excluded from the legislative debate and process. Instead we geta handful of grumpy questions focused on the dangers of a public planpushing private insurance companies out of the marketplace! Obama wasclever in exposing the illogic of the insurance lobby and dog-eat-dog,anti-government GOP legislators (who, by the way, enjoy Cadillacgovernment benefits): “They say government can’t run anything. Why arethey so fearful” of a public plan? As Obama put it, “it’s an importanttool to discipline insurance companies” and it keeps costs down.And he nodded to the overwhelming support a public plancommands–between 83 percent and 72 percent, depending on the poll–suggesting he needsto get out of DC and get out on the hustings to drum up citizen support fora plan that may well be endangered in the deal-driven, compromise-riddenhothouse of Washington.
And as we witness a jobless recovery, with the likelihood thatunemployment will continue to rise for another twelve months, the Presidenttoo quickly dismissed the idea that a second stimulus package would beneeded. “I don’t expect people to be satisfied,” Obama said, “but it isamazing how resilient the American people are and more optimistic thanthe facts would suggest.” But at a time when as the Center on Budget andPolicy Priorities reports that “new mid-year FY 2009 shortfalls of $60billion have opened up in the budgets of at least 42 states and theDistrict of Columbia” and 46 states project deficits for the upcomingfiscal year, with more furloughs, layoffs and cuts in vital services,don’t we deserve an open mind about a second recovery plan that willhelp deal with the economic hardship?
Right now, a majority do not holdObama accountable for the condition of a recession-ridden economy; it isstill Bush’s legacy. And many leading economists believe a second roundof stimulus is vital; we haven’t confronted the severity of the currentrecession. Obama’s reference to his Administration’s longterminvestments in healthcare, education and energy are all fine and good,but as the Economic Policy Institute’s Larry Mishel said the other day:”I regard all this talk about how the recession is maybe going to end,all the talk about deficits and inflation, to be the equivalent oftelling Americans , ‘You are just going to have to tough it out.’ Butwe’re looking at persistent unemployment that is going to beextraordinarily damaging to many communities. There is a ton of pain inthe pipeline.”
If Obama really wants to build that new foundation for a new, healthy,just and sustainable economy, we need his laser-like focus on therecovery’s missing ingredient: new jobs.