The text of President Barack Obama's news conference Monday night, as transcribed by CQ Transcriptions.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Good evening, everybody. Please be seated.
Before I take your questions tonight, I'd like to speak briefly about the state of our economy and why I believe we need to put this recovery plan in motion as soon as possible.
I took a trip to Elkhart, Indiana, today. Elkhart is a place that has lost jobs faster than anywhere else in America. In one year, the unemployment rate went from 4.7 percent to 15.3 percent. Companies that have sustained this community for years are shedding jobs at an alarming speed, and the people who've lost them have no idea what to do or who to turn to.
They can't pay their bills. They've stopped spending money. And because they've stopped spending money, more businesses have been forced to lay off more workers. In fact, local TV stations have started running public service announcements to tell people where to find food banks, even as the food banks don't have enough to meet the demand.
As we speak, similar scenes are playing out in cities and towns across America. Last Monday, more than 1,000 men and women stood in line for 35 firefighter jobs in Miami. Last month, our economy lost 598,000 jobs, which is nearly the equivalent of losing every single job in the state of Maine.
And if there's anyone out there who still doesn't believe this constitutes a full-blown crisis, I suggest speaking to one of the millions of Americans whose lives have been turned upside-down because they don't know where their next paycheck is coming from.
And that is why the single most important part of this economic recovery and reinvestment plan is the fact that it will save or create up to 4 million jobs, because that's what America needs most right now.
It is absolutely true that we can't depend on government alone to create jobs or economic growth. That is and must be the role of the private sector. But at this particular moment, with the private sector so weakened by this recession, the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back into life.
It is only government that can break the vicious cycle, where lost jobs lead to people spending less money, which leads to even more layoffs. And breaking that cycle is exactly what the plan that's moving through Congress is designed to do.
When passed, this plan will ensure that Americans who've lost their jobs through no fault of their own can receive greater unemployment benefits and continue their health care coverage.
We'll also provide a $2,500 tax credit to folks who are struggling to pay the costs of their college tuition and $1,000 worth of badly needed tax relief to working- and middle-class families. These steps will put more money in the pockets of those Americans who are most likely to spend it, and that will help break the cycle and get our economy moving.
But as we've learned very clearly and conclusively over the last eight years, tax cuts alone can't solve all of our economic problems, especially tax cuts that are targeted to the wealthiest few Americans. We have tried that strategy time and time again, and it's only helped lead us to the crisis we face right now.
And that's why we have come together around a plan that combines hundreds of billions in tax cuts for the middle class with direct investment in areas like health care, energy, education, and infrastructure, investments that will save jobs, create new jobs and new businesses, and help our economy grow again, now and in the future.
More than 90 percent of the jobs created by this plan will be in the private sector. They're not going to be make-work jobs, but jobs doing the work that America desperately needs done: jobs rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, repairing our dangerously deficient dams and levees so that we don't face another Katrina.
They'll be jobs building the wind turbines and solar panels and fuel-efficient cars that will lower our dependence on foreign oil and modernizing our costly health care system that will save us billions of dollars and countless lives.
They'll be jobs creating the 21st-century classrooms, libraries, and labs for millions of children across America. And they'll be the jobs of firefighters and teachers and police officers that would otherwise be eliminated if we do not provide states with some relief.
Now, after many weeks of debate and discussion, the plan that ultimately emerges from Congress must be big enough and bold enough to meet the size of the economic challenges that we face right now.
It's a plan that is already supported by businesses representing almost every industry in America, by both the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO. It contains input, ideas and compromises from both Democrats and Republicans.
It also contains an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability so that every American will be able to go online and see where and how we're spending every dime. What it does not contain, however, is a single pet project, not a single earmark, and it has been stripped of the projects members of both parties found most objectionable.
Now, despite all of this, the plan's not perfect. No plan is. I can't tell you for sure that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hoped, but I can tell you with complete confidence that a failure to act will only deepen this crisis, as well as the pain felt by millions of Americans.
Now, my administration inherited a deficit of over $1 trillion, but because we also inherited the most profound economic emergency since the Great Depression, doing little or nothing at all will result in even greater deficits, even greater job loss, even greater loss of income, and even greater loss of confidence.
Those are deficits that could turn a crisis into a catastrophe, and I refuse to let that happen. As long as I hold this office, I will do whatever it takes to put this economy back on track and put this country back to work.
I want to thank the members of Congress who've worked so hard to move this plan forward, but I also want to urge all members of Congress to act without delay in the coming week to resolve their differences and pass this plan.
We find ourselves in a rare moment where the citizens of our country and all countries are watching and waiting for us to lead. It's a responsibility that this generation did not ask for, but one that we must accept for the future of our children and our grandchildren.
The strongest democracies flourish from frequent and lively debate, but they endure when people of every background and belief find a way to set aside smaller differences in service of a greater purpose. That's the test facing the United States of America in this winter of our hardship, and it is our duty as leaders and citizens to stay true to that purpose in the weeks and months ahead.
After a day of speaking with and listening to the fundamentally decent men and women who call this nation home, I have full faith and confidence that we can do it, but we're going to have to work together. That's what I intend to promote in the weeks and days ahead.
OBAMA: And with that, I'll take some of your questions. And let me go to Jennifer Loven at AP. There you go.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. Earlier today in Indiana, you said something striking. You said that this nation could end up in a crisis without action that we would be unable to reverse.
Can you talk about what you know or what you're hearing that would lead you to say that our recession might be permanent when others in our history have not? And do you think that you risk losing some credibility or even talking down the economy by using dire language like that?
OBAMA: No, no, no, no. I think that what I've said is what other economists have said across the political spectrum, which is that, if you delay acting on an economy of this severity, then you potentially create a negative spiral that becomes much more difficult for us to get out of.
We saw this happen in Japan in the 1990s, where they did not act boldly and swiftly enough and, as a consequence, they suffered what was called the lost decade, where essentially, for the entire '90s, they did not see any significant economic growth.
So what I'm trying to underscore is what the people in Elkhart already understand, that this is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill recession. We are going through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
We've lost now 3.6 million jobs, but what's perhaps even more disturbing is that almost half of that job loss has taken place over the last three months, which means that the problems are accelerating instead of getting better.
Now, what I said in Elkhart today is what I repeat this evening, which is, I'm absolutely confident that we can solve this problem, but it's going to require us to take some significant, important steps.
Step number one: We have to pass an economic recovery and reinvestment plan. And we've made progress. There was a vote this evening that moved the process forward in the Senate. We already have a House bill that's passed. I'm hoping, over the next several days, that the House and the Senate can reconcile their differences and get that bill on my desk.
There have been criticisms from a bunch of different directions about this bill, so let me just address a few of them.
Some of the criticisms really are with the basic idea that government should intervene at all in this moment of crisis. Now, you have some people, very sincere, who philosophically just think the government has no business interfering in the marketplace. And, in fact, there are several who've suggested that FDR was wrong to interfere back in the New Deal. They're fighting battles that I thought were resolved a pretty long time ago.
Most economists almost unanimously recognize that, even if philosophically you're — you're wary of government intervening in the economy, when you have the kind of problem we have right now — what started on Wall Street, goes to Main Street, suddenly businesses can't get credit, they start paring back their investment, they start laying off workers, workers start pulling back in terms of spending — that, when you have that situation, that government is an important element of introducing some additional demand into the economy.
We stand to lose about $1 trillion worth of demand this year and another trillion next year. And what that means is you've got this gaping hole in the economy.
That's why the figure that we initially came up with of approximately $800 billion was put forward. That wasn't just some random number that I plucked out of — out of a hat. That was Republican and Democratic, conservative and liberal economists that I spoke to who indicated that, given the magnitude of the crisis and the fact that it's happening worldwide, it's important for us to have a bill of sufficient size and scope that we can save or create 4 million jobs.
That still means that you're going to have some net job loss, but at least we can start slowing the trend and moving it in the right direction.
Now, the recovery and reinvestment package is not the only thing we have to do. It's one leg of the stool. We are still going to have to make sure that we are attracting private capital, get the credit markets flowing again, because that's the lifeblood of the economy.
And so tomorrow my treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, will be announcing some very clear and specific plans for how we are going to start loosening up credit once again.
And that means having some transparency and oversight in the system. It means that we correct some of the mistakes with TARP that were made earlier, the lack of consistency, the lack of clarity, in terms of how the program was going to move forward.
It means that we condition taxpayer dollars that are being provided to banks on them showing some restraint when it comes to executive compensation, not using the money to charter corporate jets when they're not necessary.
It means that we focus on housing and how are we going to help homeowners that are suffering foreclosure or homeowners who are still making their mortgage payments, but are seeing their property values decline.
So there are going to be a whole range of approaches that we have to take for dealing with the economy.
My bottom line is to make sure that we are saving or creating 4 million jobs, we are making sure that the financial system is working again, that homeowners are getting some relief.
And I'm happy to get good ideas from across the political spectrum, from Democrats and Republicans. What I won't do is return to the failed theories of the last eight years that got us into this fix in the first place, because those theories have been tested, and they have failed. And that's what part of the election in November was all about.
OK. Caren Bohan of Reuters?
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. I'd like to shift gears to foreign policy. What is your strategy for engaging Iran? And when will you start to implement it? Will your timetable be affected at all by the Iranian elections? And are you getting any indications that Iran is interested in a dialogue with the United States?
OBAMA: I said during the campaign that Iran is a country that has extraordinary people, extraordinary history and traditions, but that its actions over many years now have been unhelpful when it comes to promoting peace and prosperity both in the region and around the world, that their attacks — or their — their financing of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, the bellicose language that they've used towards Israel, their development of a nuclear weapon or their pursuit of a nuclear weapon, that all those things create the possibility of destabilizing the region and are not only contrary to our interests, but I think are contrary to the interests of international peace.
What I've also said is that we should take an approach with Iran that employs all of the resources at the United States' disposal, and that includes diplomacy.
And so my national security team is currently reviewing our existing Iran policy, looking at areas where we can have constructive dialogue, where we can directly engage with them.
And my expectation is, in the coming months, we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table, face-to-face diplomatic overtures, that will allow us to move our policy in a new direction.
There's been a lot of mistrust built up over the years, so it's not going to happen overnight. And it's important that, even as we engage in this direct diplomacy, we are very clear about certain deep concerns that we have as a country, that Iran understands that we find the funding of terrorist organizations unacceptable, that we're clear about the fact that a nuclear Iran could set off a nuclear arms race in the region that would be profoundly destabilizing.
So there are going to be a set of objectives that we have in these conversations, but I think that there's the possibility at least of a relationship of mutual respect and progress.
And I think that, if you look at how we've approached the Middle East, my designation of George Mitchell as a special envoy to help deal with the Arab-Israeli situation, some of the interviews that I've given, it indicates the degree to which we want to do things differently in the region.
Now it's time for Iran to send some signals that it wants to act differently, as well, and recognize that, even as it has some rights as a member of the international community, with those rights come responsibilities.
OK. Chip Reid?
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. You have often said that bipartisanship is extraordinarily important, overall and in this stimulus package, but now, when we ask your advisers about the lack of bipartisanship so far — zero votes in the House, three in the Senate — they say, Well, it's not the number of votes that matters; it's the number of jobs that will be created.
Is that a sign that you are moving away — your White House is moving away from this emphasis on bipartisanship? And what went wrong? Did you underestimate how hard it would be to change the way Washington works?
OBAMA: Well, I don't think — I don't think I underestimated it. I don't think the — the American people underestimated it. They understand that there have been a lot of bad habits built up here in Washington, and it's going to take time to break down some of those bad habits.
You know, when I made a series of overtures to the Republicans, going over to meet with both Republican caucuses, you know, putting three Republicans in my cabinet — something that is unprecedented — making sure that they were invited here to the White House to talk about the economic recovery plan, all those were not designed simply to get some short-term votes. They were designed to try to build up some trust over time.
And I think that, as I continue to make these overtures, over time, hopefully that will be reciprocated.
But understand the bottom line that I've got right now, which is what's happening to the people of Elkhart and what's happening across the country. I can't afford to see Congress play the usual political games. What we have to do right now is deliver for the American people.
So my bottom line when it comes to the recovery package is: Send me a bill that creates or saves 4 million jobs. Because everybody has to be possessed with a sense of urgency about putting people back to work, making sure that folks are staying in their homes, that they can send their kids to college.
That doesn't negate the continuing efforts that I'm going to make to listen and engage with my Republican colleagues. And hopefully the tone that I've taken, which has been consistently civil and respectful, will pay some dividends over the long term. There are going to be areas where we disagree, and there are going to be areas where we agree.
As I said, the one concern I've got on the stimulus package, in terms of the debate and listening to some of what's been said in Congress, is that there seems to be a set of folks who — I don't doubt their sincerity — who just believe that we should do nothing.
Now, if that's their opening position or their closing position in negotiations, then we're probably not going to make much progress, because I don't think that's economically sound and I don't think what — that's what the American people expect, is for us to stand by and do nothing.
There are others who recognize that we've got to do a significant recovery package, but they're concerned about the mix of what's in there. And if they're sincere about it, then I'm happy to have conversations about this tax cut versus that — that tax cut or this infrastructure project versus that infrastructure project.
But what I've — what I've been concerned about is some of the language that's been used suggesting that this is full of pork and this is wasteful government spending, so on and so forth.
First of all, when I hear that from folks who presided over a doubling of the national debt, then, you know, I just want them to not engage in some revisionist history. I inherited the deficit that we have right now and the economic crisis that we have right now.
Number two is that, although there are some programs in there that I think are good policy, some of them aren't job-creators. I think it's perfectly legitimate to say that those programs should be out of this particular recovery package and we can deal with them later.
But when they start characterizing this as pork, without acknowledging that there are no earmarks in this package — something, again, that was pretty rare over the last eight years — then you get a feeling that maybe we're playing politics instead of actually trying to solve problems for the American people.
So I'm going to keep on engaging. I hope that, as we get the Senate and the House bills together, that everybody is willing to give a little bit. I suspect that the package that emerges is not going to be 100 percent of what I want.
But my bottom line is, are we creating 4 million jobs? And are we laying the foundation for long-term economic growth?
This is another concern that I've had in some of the arguments that I'm hearing. When people suggest that, What a waste of money to make federal buildings more energy-efficient. Why would that be a waste of money?
We're creating jobs immediately by retrofitting these buildings or weatherizing 2 million Americans' homes, as was called for in the package, so that right there creates economic stimulus.
And we are saving taxpayers when it comes to federal buildings potentially $2 billion. In the case of homeowners, they will see more money in their pockets. And we're reducing our dependence on foreign oil in the Middle East. Why wouldn't we want to make that kind of investment?
Now, maybe philosophically you just don't think that the federal government should be involved in energy policy. I happen to disagree with that; I think that's the reason why we find ourselves importing more foreign oil now than we did back in the early '70s when OPEC first formed.
And we can have a respectful debate about whether or not we should be involved in energy policymaking, but don't suggest that somehow that's wasteful spending. That's exactly what this country needs.
The same applies when it comes to information technologies in health care. We know that health care is crippling businesses and making us less competitive, as well as breaking the banks of families all across America. And part of the reason is, we've got the most inefficient health care system imaginable.
We're still using paper. We're still filing things in triplicate. Nurses can't read the prescriptions that doctors — that doctors have written out. Why wouldn't we want to put that on — put that on an electronic medical record that will reduce error rates, reduce our long-term costs of health care, and create jobs right now?
Education, yet another example. The suggestion is, why should the federal government be involved in school construction?
Well, I visited a school down in South Carolina that was built in the 1850s. Kids are still learning in that school, as best they can, when the — when the railroad — when the — it's right next to a railroad. And when the train runs by, the whole building shakes and the teacher has to stop teaching for a while. The — the auditorium is completely broken down; they can't use it.
So why wouldn't we want to build state-of-the-art schools with science labs that are teaching our kids the skills they need for the 21st century, that will enhance our economy, and, by the way, right now, will create jobs?