WASHINGTON -- Promoting his budget proposals yesterday, President Barack Obama strayed from his avowals of bipartisanship to portray Republican critics in Congress as naysayers who shirk the more difficult work of governing.
In a wide-ranging interview with reporters of a dozen newspapers from across the country, Mr. Obama was in the unusual position of defending his communication skills. He cited polls suggesting that the public understood and had some patience with his overall economic plan, but acknowledged persistent uncertainty regarding the banking industry.
On other subjects, Mr. Obama said:
• He is concerned about the contagion of Mexican drug cartel violence spreading across the border and was considering the possibility of deploying National Guard units to contain that threat.
• He and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner were continuing to urge other nations to press ahead with their own stimulus measures to reinforce the emergency spending package approved by Congress.
• He had not yet decided whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency should remain within the Department of Homeland Security.
• Congress and the Justice Department should err on the side of caution in easing special Voting Rights Act provisions that apply to some Southern states with a legacy of discrimination.
A relaxed Mr. Obama answered questions about his new administration in a group interview in the Roosevelt Room of the White House's West Wing. He said he expected battles in Congress over his budget proposals, but rebutted GOP assertions that the ambitious initiative represented a drastic lurch to the left.
"For them to suggest that this was some radical assault on the rich makes no sense whatsoever," he said, noting that a significant portion of the budget's tax increases -- rescinding former President George W. Bush's tax cuts for more affluent taxpayers -- had already been anticipated in Bush administration budgets despite Republican arguments, then and now, that they should be made permanent.
Asked whether he had expected the unity and discipline of GOP attacks on his economic program, he replied: "I'm not surprised, because opposition is always easy, saying no to something is easy; saying yes to something and figuring out how to govern and solve problems is hard."
Mr. Obama shrugged off criticisms that his administration has fallen short of offering a clear, comprehensive explanation for its efforts to revive the economy. He pointed to "good reviews" of the economic sketch he offered before Congress two weeks ago, but conceded, "I think we can always do a better job."
He acknowledged the "degrees of concern that people have," but said: "We've been in office all of seven weeks right now. This is a crisis that was eight years in the making -- maybe longer in certain aspects of it -- and the buck stops with me.
"The truth of the matter is that the American people, I think, understand that it's going to take some time. If you look at the public polling, they recognize it's going to take a while to dig ourselves out of the hole."
Regarding the troubled housing sector, he said, "You're already starting to see an uptick in refinancings that have provided families with relief, and in certain parts of the country you're starting to see housing prices stabilize after a long drop."
But the president seemed to acknowledge persistent anxiety about the efficacy of pouring hundreds of billions of public dollars into banks, seeking to restore the flow of credit. "I think the one area where there's still significant uncertainty has to do with the bank issue," he said. "And that's obviously a particular concern to Wall Street.
"The challenge for us there is ... we're in the process of conducting the stress tests for the banks, to get a better sense of where their capital positions are and how strong they are. And what we don't want to do is prejudge those tests or make a lot of statements that cause a lot of nervousness around banks that are already having difficulty."
He called on Republican critics to "start putting forward an affirmative agenda that's not based on ideology, but on the very real struggles and pain that people are feeling right now around the country.
"On this budget debate, for example, ...you've got people who, on the one hand, say, 'We want to bring down the long-term deficit, but we don't want to cut certain programs that are important, ... and, by the way, we don't want to raise taxes.'
"Well, sounds good," he continued. "And I'd like to make sure that the Chicago Bulls win the championship every year, and the White Sox win the Series. But, you know, show me how you're going to do it."
In response to questions on the border-security issues, Mr. Obama noted that Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had met recently with his Mexican counterpart to assess the threat from aggressive drug gangs. Police officials in the border states of Arizona and Texas have cited a surge in violence, including kidnappings tied to drug cartel efforts to supply and control the U.S. drug market.
Mr. Obama said he wanted to avoid "militarizing" the nation's long southern border, but added: "We're going to examine whether, and if, National Guard deployments would make sense, and in what circumstances they would make sense, as part of this overall review of our border situation."
"I haven't drawn any conclusions yet. I don't have a particular tipping point in mind," he said. "I think it's unacceptable if you've got drug gangs crossing our borders and killing U.S. citizens."
Mr. Obama said Mexican President Felipe Calderon "is really working hard and taking some extraordinary risks under extraordinary pressure to deal with the drug cartels and the violence."
The president said his administration is seeking "a comprehensive approach" that not only supports Mr. Calderon's efforts but also seeks to stem the southern flow of guns and money, "because it's really a two-way situation."
Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1562.