WASHINGTON, April 29, 2009— -- In a White House press conference marking the 100th day of his administration, President Barack Obama came prepared to talk about the most pressing issues of the day -- swine flu, Bush administration interrogation memos and the nation's economy.
But it was a more personal question about his perspective on the office of the presidency that really got him talking.
Asked by a reporter what has surprised, enchanted, humbled and troubled him the most about his position, Obama seemed taken aback at such an off-topic question.
Obama asked the reporter to go through the list again to make sure he had it all straight. "Now let me write this down," he said.
The president said he was most surprised by the sheer volume of things his team is dealing with -- "the number of critical issues that appear to be coming to a head all at the same time."
"You know, the typical president, I think, has two or three big problems. We've got seven or eight big problems," he said.
The president said he was less troubled and more sobered by the fact that change in Washington does not come quickly. Obama campaigned on bringing change to the nation's capital and said tonight that a break from politics as usual, even when dealing with "really big crises," has not happened as much as he would like.
Obama demurred on what has enchanted him but said he is "profoundly impressed" by the men and women in the armed services and said he was humbled by the realization that no matter how "extraordinarily powerful" the presidency is, it is part of "a much broader tapestry of American life."
"I can't just press a button and suddenly have the bankers do exactly what I want or, you know, turn on a switch and suddenly, you know, Congress falls in line," Obama said.
This is Obama's third prime-time press conference and while it was scheduled to coincide with the 100th day of his administration, the president made it clear he was looking forward to the next 100 days and beyond.
The first question posed to the president was about the outbreak of swine flu in the United States and around the world. Obama reiterated that while the virus is a "cause for deep concern," it is not a cause for panic.
Obama said his advisors have not recommended closing the border between the United States and Mexico, likening it to "closing the barn door after the horses are out."
The president said he has requested an immediate $1.5 billion in emergency funding from Congress to support efforts to monitor and track the virus and build the government's supply of antiviral drugs and medical equipment.
Obama Says Waterboarding Is Torture
"The key now I think is to make sure that we're maintaining great vigilance, that everybody responds appropriately when cases do come up, and individual families start taking very sensible precautions that can make a huge difference," he said.
On the issue of interrogation policies and methods, Obama said that waterboarding was in fact torture, but he would not specifically say that the Bush administration sanctioned it.
Obama pointed to his decision to end such practices and said he has seen no information since taking office that has made him second guess it.
"I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do, not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are," he said.
With the clock ticking for Chrysler to come up with a plan to remain viable, Obama said he was "very hopeful, more hopeful" than a month ago that the automaker would get it done. He expressed greater confidence in General Motors.
"I would love to get the U.S. government out of the auto business as quickly as possible. We have a circumstance in which a bad recession compounded some great weaknesses already in the auto industry," the president said.
Obama called the budget plan passed by Congress today the latest step in his administration's efforts to stabilize the American economy.
"This budget builds on the steps we've taken over the last 100 days to move this economy from recession to recovery and ultimately to prosperity," Obama said. Both the House and Senate today passed the $3.5 trillion five-year budget plan that sets funding priorities for many of the president's top agenda items, including investments in education, renewable energy and health care.
"We must lay a new foundation for growth -- a foundation that will strengthen our economy and help us compete in the 21st century. And that's exactly what this budget begins to do," Obama said.
Obama's top advisers spent most of the day playing the media-driven game of marking the president's 100th day in office.
Despite the demure attempts by those advisers to write the day off as a "Hallmark holiday," the administration has been sure to have representatives fanned out across the airwaves today touting the sheer size and scope of what Obama has accomplished in his short time at the White House.
Obama 'Pleased With Our Progress' in First 100 Days
But even the president got into the game a bit at his town hall meeting outside of St. Louis today and in his remarks tonight before he took questions.
"You can expect an unrelenting, unyielding effort from this administration to strengthen our prosperity and our security in the second hundred days, in the third hundred days, and all of the days after that," he said.
Obama echoed comments he made at a town hall meeting this morning in Arnold, Mo., and said that while there has been progress on the economy in the first 100 days of his administration, there is still much work to be done.
"I am proud of what we have achieved, but I am not content," he said. "I am pleased with our progress, but I am not satisfied."
The president ran through a list of big issues that still need to be addressed: economic issues like unemployment, tight credit markets, the struggling auto industry and long-term deficits, and foreign policy issues such as the continued threat of terrorism, nuclear weapons and flu.
"The overture has finished and now it truly begins," said one adviser to the White House, referring to the healthcare, energy, and automaker debates to come. "If people thought the first 100 days a productive one, it genuinely only served as a curtain raiser," the adviser added.
With the Senate likely to house 60 desks on the Democratic side of the aisle before too long, an emboldened majority in the House after winning some intra-party skirmishes like fast-tracking health care reform and an inter-party victory in upstate New York, and a cratering Republican Party still searching for a path back to power, Obama enters this next phase of his presidency in an envious position and one of a considerable strength.
But he acknowledged that even with Sen. Arlen Specter's party change, he still faces challenges from senators who "have very strong opinions" he said.
"Now, I am under no illusions that suddenly I'm going to have a rubber-stamp Senate. I've got Democrats who don't agree with me on everything, and that's how it should be," Obama said.
So, what will Obama use his 69 percent approval rating to accomplish? Political observers will be disecting the president's press conference to determine whether he is deciding to put that political capital on the line or if he intends to keep most of his legislative battling ahead behind closed doors.
Leadership aides on Capitol Hill anticipate that perhaps the biggest White House push will come on healthcare reform that includes a public option, a component that is of great concern to the insurance industry which Obama hopes to keep at the negotiating table throughout the legislative process in order to avoid a 1994-style blowup.
Obama Ready to Be 'Fundraiser-in-Chief'?
One new role Obama is expected to play as he heads into his next 100 Days is that of fundraiser-in-chief. The president has already headlined two fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee where he helped collect nearly $3 million.
He also e-mailed supporters about his endorsement of Scott Murphy, the new Democratic congressman from upstate New York. Other than that toe-dipping, Obama has shied away from pure politics.
But Specter's party switching 100th Day gift to Obama kicked off what is expected to be a more overtly political phase of his presidency as he helps to bolster Democratic bank accounts in advance of next year's midterm elections.
After attempting to clear the Pennsylvania Democratic primary field with his and Joe Biden's endorsement of Specter this morning, Obama is also scheduled to shake the money tree for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., at the end of next month in Las Vegas.
The two Democratic campaign committees on Capitol Hill have announced the president will be headlining a June 18 fundraiser in Washington, D.C., to help fill their midterm coffers.
As he takes on that more partisan task, the president will strive to strike the balance of party leader without tarnishing his current strong support from the key ideologically centrist Americans.