WASHINGTON, Feb. 9, 2009 -- President Barack Obama used his first prime time press conference to urge Congress to resolve its differences and pass the stimulus plan, warning that failure to act would worsen the economic crisis, which he called "not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill recession."
The appearance comes as Obama hits the road for campaign-style travel to pitch the stimulus plan directly to the American people and highlight areas across the nation that are in need of an immediate economic boost.
Tonight in the East Room of the White House, Obama said job creation would be the initial indicator that the stimulus plan is working.
"[I]f people are working, then they've got enough confidence to make purchases, to make investments," he said. "Businesses start seeing that consumers are out there with a little more confidence, and they start making investments, which means they start hiring workers."
Last week the Labor Department announced that 598,000 jobs were lost in January, the worst single-month loss since December 1974, and unemployment rose to 7.6 percent.
Obama said the other two key indicators of success will be normalizing the credit market to increase opportunities for consumers to get credit and stabilization of the housing market.
If the government gets things right, Obama said, significant improvement could be seen next year, but he warned that this will be "a difficult year" dealing with "an unprecedented crisis."
"[M]y hope is that after a difficult year -- and this year is going to be a difficult year -- that businesses start investing again, they start making decisions that, you know, in fact, there's money to be made out there, customers or consumers start feeling that their jobs are stable and safe, and they start making purchases again, and, if we get things right, then, starting next year, we can start seeing significant improvement," he said.
As he has done recently, Obama admitted the stimulus plan was not perfect but defended the bill's bipartisan support. No Republican voted for the bill when it passed the House and only three Republican senators voted for the stimulus in a vote to close debate on it late today.
"It is a plan that is already supported by businesses representing almost every industry in America; by both the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO." Obama said. "It contains input, ideas, and compromises from both Democrats and Republicans."
Obama said that government alone cannot be counted on to create jobs or economic growth, but now is the time for the government to step in to prevent a catastrophe.
"[A]t this particular moment, with the private sector so weakened by this recession, the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back to life," Obama said.
"It is only government that can break the vicious cycle where lost jobs lead to people spending less money, which leads to even more layoffs," he said. "And breaking that cycle is exactly what the plan that's moving through Congress is designed to do."
Obama Addresses Other Topics
While the bulk of the press conference focused on the economy, Obama did address other topics, including foreign policy and the admission by New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez that he used steroids.
The White House appeared to be caught flat-footed last week as Republican opponents of the stimulus plan took to the airwaves in strong opposition of the package and the administration found itself mired in the tax controversies of Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer, Obama's pick to be the federal government's chief performance officer.
The press conference and town hall meetings outside of Washington are part of an effort by the White House to try to reframe the stimulus debate on its own terms.
On a campaign-style trip to Indiana today, Obama stressed the urgent need for Congress to pass the economic stimulus plan and warned of dire consequences for Americans if they do not get relief soon.
"Folks here in Elkhart and across America need help right now, and they can't afford to keep on waiting for folks in Washington to get this done," the president said to an audience of about 1,700 at a town hall meeting at Concord Community High School in Elkhart. "[W]e can't afford to wait. We can't wait and see and hope for the best. We can't posture and bicker and resort to the same failed ideas that got us into this mess in the first place."
In remarks at the start of the town hall meeting, Obama said that behind the troubling economic statistics are stories of Americans who are struggling in northwest Indiana and around the country.
"Those are the stories I heard when I came here to Elkhart six months ago and that I have carried with me every day since," the president said, noting that his last campaign event and his first presidential road trip took place in the Hoosier state.
"I promised you back then that if elected president, I would do everything I could to help this community recover. And that's why I've come back today, to tell you how I intend to keep that promise."
Obama Admits Stimulus Plan Is Flawed
The questions from audience members were specific, focusing on the provisions of the stimulus bill and what the package will do for everyday Americans like themselves.
Ticketholders were lined up outside the high school for hours, including Byron Gilbert of South Bend who lost his job at a local auto manufacturer last year and has been working odd jobs and scrimping to support his family.
Gilbert said his top concern is unemployment and he came to hear Obama explain how the stimulus plan will help the local economy.
"The numbers are real. It just keeps getting worse every day. You can't open a newspaper, watch any of the news broadcasts without seeing devastating results of this economy," Gilbert said. "When you think of thousands of people getting laid off at one time you wonder, where's it going to end?"
Obama admitted that the stimulus package on Capitol Hill is flawed but said that it is the right thing to get the economy back on track.
"Now I'm not going to tell you that this bill is perfect. It isn't. But it is the right size, the right scope, and has the right priorities to create jobs that will jumpstart our economy and transform it for the 21st century," he said.
The city of Elkhart is facing unemployment of nearly 18 percent and the county unemployment rate has tripled in the last year to 15.3 percent, the highest increase of any metropolitan area in the country.
There were 8,000 jobs lost in the past year in the county and 16,000 people are unemployed there.
The White House claims that the stimulus package would create or save 79,300 jobs in Indiana over the next two years; provide an income tax credit of up to $1,000 for 2.5 million workers and their families; create a new $2,500 partially refundable tax credit for four years of college for 76,000 Indiana families; offer an additional $100 per month in unemployment insurance benefits to 456,000 unemployed Indianans; extend unemployment benefits to an additional 89,000; and provide funds to modernize at least 176 Indiana schools.
Selling the Stimulus
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Air Force One today that the purpose of the trip to Elkhart was not to provide the city's residents an update from inside the Beltway.
"[T]his is not explaining to Indiana what's going on in Washington; this is taking Washington to show them what's going on in Indiana and all over the country -- and why people are hurting," Gibbs said.
Obama continues his stimulus road show Tuesday with a town hall meeting in Ft. Myers, Fla., an area hit hard by home foreclosures and job losses.
Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Crist will join Obama at the town hall meeting Tuesday, a public show of support from the governor, who was one of four Republican governors who signed on to a letter to the president expressing support for the stimulus bill.
"Florida has taken prudent steps to cut taxes for our people and balance our budget in these increasingly difficult times. Any attempts at federal stimulus must prioritize job creation and targeted tax relief for small business owners. I am eager to welcome President Obama to the Sunshine State as he continues to work hard to reignite the U.S. economy," Crist said in a statement today.
ABC News' Jake Tapper, Yunji De Nies and Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.