Obama calls for a swift stimulus
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Seeking a break from "an era of profound irresponsibility that stretched from corporate board rooms to the halls of power in Washington, D.C.," President-elect Barack Obama yesterday called for speedy passage of a massive recovery package for the nation's hobbled economy.
His remarks at northern Virginia's George Mason University combined an ominous portrayal of the business climate with the promise that bipartisan resolve could overcome "a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime."
While concentrating more on broad themes than policy specifics, Mr. Obama sketched a plan that embodies industrial-strength versions of many initiatives he had outlined during his campaign. Their enactment, he said would "save or create 3 million jobs over the next few years."
The president-elect called for a $1,000 tax cut for most Americans, along with major, rapid government investments in energy efficiency and alternative-energy production, the computerization of all medical records and increases in spending for technology research and for education.
But Mr. Obama's most urgent words spoke to the timing, rather than the content, of the legislative package. "I don't believe it's too late to change course, but it will be if we don't take dramatic action as soon as possible," he said. "If nothing is done, this recession could linger for years. ... We could lose a generation of potential and promise, as more young Americans are forced to forgo dreams of college or the chance to train for the jobs of the future."
His speech echoed Democratic predecessors who took office in challenging times. In words similar to a famous passage in President John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech, he urged Americans to approach the economic debate by asking not, " 'What's good for me?' but 'What's good for the country my children will inherit?' "
He also alluded to the words of President Franklin Roosevelt as he said, "More than any program or policy, it is this spirit that will enable us to confront this challenge with the same spirit that has led previous generations to face down war, depression and fear itself."
But whereas Mr. Roosevelt famously told the audience of his first inaugural address, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," Mr. Obama was intent on conveying the message that there is plenty to fear from a lack of swift and ambitious action in Washington.
In his speech audience were several mayors and governors who presumably welcomed a call to "put people to work repairing crumbling roads, bridges and schools by eliminating the backlog of well-planned, worthy and needed infrastructure projects."
"Government at every level will have to tighten its belt, but we'll help struggling states avoid harmful budget cuts, as long as they take responsibility and use the money to maintain essential services like police, fire, education and health care," Mr. Obama added.
Democrats had once speculated that recovery legislation could be crafted by the first week of the new president's term. But on the day when Congress officially certified his Electoral College victory, Mr. Obama's remarks tacitly acknowledged that it wouldn't happen that quickly.
To counteract "a devastating loss of trust and confidence in our economy, our financial markets and our government," the Democrat asked Congress "to work with me and my team day and night, on weekends if necessary, to get the plan passed in the next few weeks."
Along with that speed, the president-elect urged lawmakers to pursue a new way of doing business -- in particular, a turn away from the controversial tradition of earmarks in spending bills. "Instead of politicians doling out money behind a veil of secrecy, decisions about where we invest will be made transparently and informed by independent experts wherever possible," he said.
He also called for a similar spirit of transparency in financial markets, with new regulations to combat "imprudent and dangerous" practices on Wall Street.
The formal speech was the latest in a series of statements of concern over the economy from the president-elect. Beyond general promises of bipartisanship, it elicited mixed reactions from lawmakers of both parties.
GOP leaders of the two chambers pledged cooperation, but their words of approval were heavily qualified.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told ABC News: "I'm pleased with what the new president's had to say so far. I don't have any complaints about the communication at this stage."
Mr. McConnell said that even conservative economists with whom he'd consulted "agreed with the president, the incoming president, that we need to do a stimulus." But he left plenty of room for future disagreements with a warning over the potential size of the stimulus measure. "Obviously, the issue is how big and what form," Mr. McConnell said. "Given the deficit numbers, it really ought not to be a $1 trillion spending bill."
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, also warned about the threat of serial deficits. "It's going to be our kids and their kids" who pay the debt, he said. "And we can't bury them under the debt, and we can't buy prosperity with more and more government spending."
Another senior House GOP member, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., was similarly cautious about the prospect of continuing red ink. "What I heard today just gives me a great bit of concern," he said in a CNN interview. "We're talking about spending a trillion dollars. The president-elect has said that out of that trillion dollars, we'll see over 3 million jobs created.
"At that rate, it's almost a $330,000 per-job cost, if that's what we're going to do. It's a tremendous expansion of government if you look and listen to what he's saying," Mr. Cantor said.
Several Democratic senators offered reservations about the tax cuts in the Obama plan. While he did not spell them out in detail yesterday, in previous interviews Mr. Obama and his aides have suggested that a total package of roughly $750 billion might include as much as $300 million in tax cuts to businesses and individuals.
After a closed Senate Finance Committee session, Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., told The Associated Press that he had reservations about the effectiveness of such cuts. "Twenty bucks a week. How much of a lift is that going to give?" he asked. "If I'm a business person, it's unlikely if you give me a several thousand dollars' credit that I'm going to hire people if I can't sell the products they're producing."
In a news conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., predicted that her chamber would respond to the new president's call for speed. Unless the plan is enacted, she said, she would cancel the House's traditional Presidents' Day recess in mid-February. "We are staying until it is done," she vowed.
First Published January 9, 2009 12:00 am