With the country combating "an economic crisis of historic proportions," President-elect Barack Obama Monday took the historic step of leaping into presidential action two months before his inauguration. Obama today pushed for a large, two-year economic stimulus package and introduced the key players on his economic team, a group of "sound judgment and fresh thinking" he believes will navigate the nation through its current financial troubles.
"That work starts today, because the truth is, we do not have a minute to waste," he said.
At the mid-day press conference at the Chicago Hilton, his second since winning the election, Obama urged Congress to have a stimulus package ready for him "right away," reiterated his campaign trail plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and applauded Capitol Hill lawmakers for insisting that the troubled auto industry produce a plan before providing them with any bail-out money.
Standing behind the President-elect were Obama’s picks for numerous high-ranking economic posts: New York Federal Reserve President Timothy Geithner for Treasury Secretary, former Treasury chief Lawrence Summers as Director of the National Economic Council, Cal-Berkeley economic professor Christina Romer for Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Melody Barnes as Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
"We know this won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight," Obama said. "We’ll need to bring together the best minds in America to guide us, and that is what I’ve sought to do in assembling my economic team."
Vice President-elect Joe Biden was also on stage, with key aides such as incoming Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, future White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, and senior adviser David Axelrod looking on from a side wall.
While touting his new economic team, headed by two Clinton administration advisers in Geithner and Summers, Obama still warned of the dire situation they will inherit, citing experts’ forecasts that millions of jobs will be lost next year.
"The economy is likely to get worse before it gets better," he forecasted.
So today Obama emphasized the need to "act swiftly and boldly," urging Congress to have a stimulus package ready when he comes to Washington in late January. Obama Transition aides are working with lawmakers so a stimulus package has passed both the House and Senate and is awaiting Obama’s signature on his first day in office, on January 20.
"It is my hope that the new Congress will begin work on an aggressive economic recovery plan when they convene in early January so that our administration can hit the ground running," he said. "With our economy in distress, we cannot hesitate and we cannot delay."
However, Obama declined to provide any dollar estimates for the package, saying only that it would be "big" and "costly."
"I want to see it enacted right away," he said. "It is going to be of a size and scope that is necessary to get this economy back on track. I don’t want to get into numbers right now."
Dollars aside, Obama, who on Saturday outlined a two-year plan to create or save 2.5 million jobs, noted that any stimulus package would have to serve both short-term and long-term needs.
“Not only do I want the stimulus package to deal with the immediate crisis, I want it also to lay the groundwork for long-term sustained economic growth.”
AUTO INDUSTRY BAIL-OUT
Part of this immediate crisis is the struggling auto industry, with executives from Detroit’s Big Three coming to Congress last week in search of $25 billion in federal aid, only to be turned away by lawmakers and told to return next month with a better plan of attack.
"We can’t allow the auto industry simply to — to vanish. We’ve got to make sure that it is there and that the workers, and suppliers, and businesses that rely on the auto industry stay in business," Obama said. "What I also have said is that we can’t just write a blank check to the auto industry. Taxpayers can’t be expected to pony up more money for an auto industry that has been resistant to change."
"And I was surprised that they did not have a better-thought-out proposal when they arrived in Congress," he said of the auto executives. "I think Congress did the right thing, which is to say, "You guys need to come up with a plan and come back before you’re getting any taxpayer money."
Whatever plan is eventually enacted, Obama said, cannot be merely “a blank check to the auto industry” nor “just kicking the can down the road.”
"Taxpayers don’t want to see more money wasted, so we need to see a plan," he said. "And when we see a plan, we’re going to, I think, be able to shape the kind of assistance package that makes sense."
TAX HIKES FOR THE WEALTHY
Obama reiterated that the Bush tax cuts for the most wealthy Americans would soon enough be a thing of the past, but said he would await a recommendation from his advisers before deciding whether to repeal the Bush tax cuts or simply let them expire in 2010.
"We’re going to help pay for some of these expenditures that are absolutely necessary to get our economy back on track, that those who are in a position to pay a little bit more do so," Obama said. "Whether that’s done through repeal or whether that’s done because the Bush tax cuts are not renewed is something that my economic team will be providing me a recommendation on."
THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION
Invited by a reporter to criticize the current administration’s handling of the economy — Obama aide Austan Goolsbee described the Bush administration as "dithering" — the Illinois lawmaker noted that he did not want to "look backwards," although he did comment on current Treasury chief Hank Paulson.
"I’m sure there are some things that didn’t work exactly the way Secretary Paulson intended –- he’d be the first to admit that."
But, noting that he had spoken to President Bush this morning, Obama attempted to reassure the American people with a message of unity, promising to “honor the public commitments” made by the Bush administration and have his team consult with the current leaders, Congress, and the Federal Reserve in the next 57 days before he takes over the Oval Office.
“I think what’s most important for the American people to understand is that we are united in making sure that the financial system works and operates the way it needs to," he said.
Despite the often downcast tone of today’s press conference, Obama still struck an optimistic chord that the country can — and will — overcome this financial crisis.
"I believe deeply in the resilience and the spirit of this nation," affirmed the future 44th president. "I know we can work our way out of this crisis because we’ve done it before. And I know we will succeed once again if we put aside partisanship and politics and work together. That’s exactly what I intend to do as president of the United States."
SAME TIME, SAME PLACE TOMORROW
After laying low the past few weeks, spending most of his time in private meetings at his transition offices, Obama will hold another press conference tomorrow morning. Tuesday’s newser, Obama indicated, would likely focus on budget cuts.
"To make the investments we need, we’ll have to scour our federal budget, line by line, and make meaningful cuts and sacrifices, as well, something I’ll be discussing further tomorrow," he said.
On a lighter note, today’s press conference paid homage to the rivalry that divides this baseball-crazed town. Reporters sat on one of two sides of the ballroom: the South side for the Chicago White Sox, Obama’s favorite team, or the North side for the rival Cubs. And the President-elect showed some favoritism today, taking four questions from the Sox half of the room and just two from the Cubs side.
– Matt Jaffe and Jake Tapper