In his first news conference since unveiling his $447 billion jobs bill, President Obama tried to turn up the heat on Republicans in Congress, but he also fielded tough questions about the problems that have plagued his presidency.
Mr. Obama insisted that passing the “American Jobs Act” would be “insurance” against another recession, and he challenged Republicans to take action.
“Any senator out there who’s thinking about voting against this jobs bill when it comes up for a vote needs to explain exactly why they would oppose something we know would improve our economic situation at an urgent time,” Obama said.
The president also said he was “comfortable” with a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid which would impose a 5.6% surtax on millionaires to pay for the bill. Reid altered the president’s initial “pay-for” plan, which would have increased taxes on families making $250,000 or more and on large corporations after a number of Senate Democrats expressed opposition.
The president’s revised jobs plan is expected to come up for a vote in the Senate next week, but the legislation will have a difficult time passing through either chamber. Republicans have insisted they will not support any plan that increases taxes, because they say the hikes will ultimately hurt job creation.
Obama quickly found himself answering difficult questions about the apparent political stalemate.
“Are you worried about your own powers of persuasion and maybe that the American public is not listening to you anymore?” Obama was asked by NBC’s Chuck Todd.
The president initially responded, “Well, no.” But when pressed he admitted, “There may be some skepticism that I personally can persuade Republicans to take actions in the interest of the American people, but that’s exactly why I need the American people to try to put some pressure on them.”
The 71-minute news conference comes against a difficult political backdrop. The unemployment rate has been stuck above 9 percent, Obama’s approval ratings have reached record lows, and 2012 looms large.
Republicans have accused the president of using the bill as a political tool.
“We’re legislating. He’s campaigning,” charged House Speaker John Boehner Thursday.
But the president shot down that notion.
“If Congress does something, then I can’t run against a do-nothing Congress,” Obama retorted. “If Congress does nothing, then it’s not a matter of me running against them. I think the American people will run them out of town.”
In recent weeks the president has traveled across the country pitching his jobs plan to the American people by taking on an increasingly combative and populist tone. Today, he tried to further tap into voter frustration when he spoke, for the first time, about the anti-Wall Street protests that started in New York and have now sprouted up in various other cities, including Washington.
“I think people are frustrated,” Obama said, “and, you know, the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about our financial system.”
When asked why his administration hasn’t prosecuted anyone from Wall Street, the president said what happened may have been “immoral,” but not necessarily “illegal.”