Obama calls Pittsburgh a model for the future

An exclusive from the Oval Office

WASHINGTON -- Pittsburgh was chosen as the site for the G-20 summit to show the world its successful economic transition and to display how America's future rests not just on its most populous cities, President Barack Obama said in an interview.

The president spoke to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 25 minutes Friday in the Oval Office about a broad range of subjects in advance of this week's Group of 20 summit.

The White House announcement in May that Pittsburgh would become the first noncapital city to act as host to G-20 leaders was a surprise to the United States and the world. But to Mr. Obama, it made perfect sense.

"This is a recognition that Pittsburgh is a world-class city," Mr. Obama said. "That it represents the transition of the U.S. economy from [an] industrial state to a mix of strong industry -- steel -- but also now biotech and clean energy. It has transformed itself, after some very tough times, into a city that's competing in the world economy.

"So to have the G-20 summit, which is really becoming the forum in which an interconnected 21st-century economy is discussed and the architecture is shaped, having that conversation take place in Pittsburgh I think is very appropriate because it shows the direction that our economy is moving.

"It means that Pittsburgh is now having to pay attention to what happens in Beijing and Bangalore and Eastern Europe in ways that in the past it didn't have to pay attention to."

As Pittsburgh looks outward, Mr. Obama said, it also deserves global attention for its place in the economy as America continues to recover from a lengthy recession.

"It gives me an opportunity to underscore the fact that our long-term success is not just dependent on what happens in New York or Washington or Los Angeles, but it's going to depend on what happens in cities like Pittsburgh," he said.

The president is scheduled to arrive Thursday for a two-day meeting with heads of state and finance ministers from 18 other nations and the European Union. They will discuss a variety of topics, but the recovery from global recession will be a top priority, Mr. Obama said.

A key piece of that is regulatory reform -- an issue Mr. Obama pressed on a domestic level with a speech on Wall Street last week.

"How do we make sure that banks are not making money by taking wild risks, expecting taxpayer bailouts if their risks don't pay off, but instead are acting prudentially; that they've got strong capital requirements; that we are regulating the derivatives market; that we make sure that if these big financial institutions make bad decisions, that there's a way of resolving their problems without potentially bringing down the entire financial system or forcing taxpayers to foot the bill; making sure that the compensation structures for these big institutions are not geared towards short-term profits but are geared towards long-term sustainability," Mr. Obama said.

"What we want to create is a race to the top where, because of a strong regulatory framework, the free market can still operate effectively and there's still innovation and dynamism and creativity -- all of the things that have made America great -- but that it's happening with some rules of the road so that things don't spin out of control."

At a meeting in London this month, the G-20 finance ministers and central bankers agreed in principle to coordinate policy on topics such as interest rates. At the last G-20 in April, also in London, the group coordinated efforts on stimulus -- which the U.S. Congress had passed in a narrow vote in February.

The $787 billion stimulus continues to draw Republican criticism claiming a lack of effectiveness, but Mr. Obama touted it as crucial to steering the economy in a positive direction.

"The actions that we took in London in the last G-20 really were geared towards making sure that not only were we stimulating our economy with the Recovery Act that we put forward ... but our actions in London ensured that other countries were doing the same thing at the same time," Mr. Obama said.

"And that means that export-geared industries in Ohio or in Pennsylvania, that they were able to start seeing their markets improve."

But Mr. Obama noted that any sense of recovery is far from the minds of many Americans who are struggling or out of work. In August, the national unemployment rate rose to 9.7 percent, or 14.9 million people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Mr. Obama said overcoming the recession's toll will be a lengthy process, especially in areas that relied on heavy industry.

"The manufacturing base that employed so many people, the decline in that sector of the economy took decades," Mr. Obama said. "It didn't start last year, it's been going on for ... two decades. And reversing that and rebuilding it is going to take two decades, as well ...

"We've got to make sure that we're cultivating those small businesses and entrepreneurs who are going to be driving employment growth, and that -- so that 20 years from now we can look back and we can say, this was the pivot point, this is where we started to turn the corner."

In closing the interview, the president said he has taken notice of the efforts to polish the city in preparation for its week in the spotlight.

"We look forward to seeing the people of Pittsburgh -- and can I just mention on the record how grateful I am to the city of Pittsburgh for all the volunteers who've come out, the beautification that's taken place," Mr. Obama said.

"Mayor Ravenstahl I think has really led the charge on this. Governor Rendell has been terrific. So across the board, what you've seen, I think, is the best civic spirit."

Daniel Malloy can be reached at dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC. First Published September 20, 2009 4:30 AM


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