WASHINGTON, March 24, 2009 -- Trying to shore up support for his economic agenda, including his $3.6 trillion budget, President Barack Obama told the American people tonight that there are glimmers of hope that the economy is starting to recover, but he called for continued patience from a recession-weary nation.
"We'll recover from this recession, but it will take time, it will take patience, and it will take an understanding that, when we all work together, when each of us looks beyond our own short-term interest to the wider set of obligations we have towards each other, that's when we succeed, that's when we prosper, and that's what is needed right now," the president said in a prime-time news conference, the second of his young administration.
In remarks from the East Room of the White House, Obama pointed to "signs of progress" that are starting to show from the economic strategy his team has put in place and continued to tout his budget proposals as critical to the nation's economic recovery.
"It's important to remember that this crisis didn't happen overnight and it didn't result from any one action or decision," the president said. "There are no quick fixes, and there are no silver bullets."
Taking questions from 13 reporters in a press conference that lasted just under an hour, Obama defended his administration's call for greater regulatory authority over failing financial institutions by pointing out that it was because of a lack of authority by the federal government that the AIG financial crisis happened.
"We should have obtained it much earlier so that any institution that poses a systemic risk that could bring down the financial system we can handle and we can do it in an orderly fashion that quarantines it from other institutions," he said.
Obama appeared to dial back some of the anger he has recently expressed at AIG for its handling of the executive bonus program and at other executives on Wall Street, but he did admonish them for the excess risk and reward.
"Bankers and executives on Wall Street need to realize that enriching themselves on the taxpayers' dime is inexcusable, that the days of outsized rewards and reckless speculation that puts us all at risk have to be over," he said.
Obama urged the American people to temper their own outrage.
"At the same time, the rest of us can't afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit," he said. "That drive is what has always fueled our prosperity, and it is what will ultimately get these banks lending and our economy moving once more."
Asked why it took him several days to publicly express his outrage against AIG, Obama exhibited what has become a trademark note of caution.
"It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak," he said.
The president continued to make the case that his budget is the best way to reduce the deficit and expand economic growth "by moving from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest."
He cited the four key pillars contained in his budget proposal -- health care, energy reform, education and deficit reduction -- as critical to an economic recovery.
"We invest in the renewable sources of energy that will lead to new jobs, new businesses, and less dependence on foreign oil. We invest in our schools and our teachers, so that our children have the skills they need to compete with any workers in the world. We invest in reform that will bring down the cost of health care for families, businesses and our government," Obama said of the $3.6 trillion outline he released last month.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have blasted the president's budget as too expensive and irresponsible, because of the $7-$9.3 trillion national debt his proposals are projected to create over the next 10 years. Tonight the president fired back at his critics, saying they have "a short memory."
"As I recall, I'm inheriting a $1.3 trillion deficit, annual deficit, from them," Obama said.
Obama was pressed on the reports that Senate Democrats are writing a budget that does not include the middle-class tax cut that was included in his stimulus package. The president would not say if he would sign off on a budget bill if that measure is excluded, but did note that the tax cut would be in place for two years because it was written in the recovery bill.
"We never expected, when we printed out our budget, that they would simply Xerox it and vote on it. We assume that it has to go through the legislative process," Obama said. "I have not yet seen the final product coming out of the Senate or the House, and we're in constant conversations with them."
Obama said he was "confident" that the budget outline that will pass Congress will contain a blueprint for his principles on health care, energy and education reform.
On the global financial crisis, the president expressed his confidence in the American dollar and said the reason it is performing well against other currencies is because "investors consider the United States the strongest economy in the world with the most stable political system in the world."
Obama said he did not believe there was a need for a global currency, pushing back against the suggestion by Chinese officials ahead of the G20 financial summit next week in London.
Iraq, Afghanistan Not on Reporters' Agenda
While it was expected that the economy would dominate the news conference, it was noteworthy that Obama was not asked a single question about Iraq, a sharp departure from press conferences during the Bush administration.
He was also not asked about the announcement his administration is expected to make later this week on a new policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Part of that policy will be the addition of about 17,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the end of August, to increase the presence there to about 64,000. The mission is to aggressively pursue al Qaeda and prevent it from maintaining a stronghold in Afghanistan.
The plan will call for U.S. forces to go after the Taliban only if is providing safe haven to and cooperating with al Qaeda.
Vice President Joe Biden and other senior foreign policy envoys have been consulting with allies as part of the administration's strategic review of its policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Obama's 'Dialogue With the American People'
The administration has shown a willingness to take the president out of Washington and have him speak directly to the American public, an apparent effort to maintain control of its economic message.
Last week, Obama traveled to California to participate in two town hall meetings.
While on the West Coast, he dropped by "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," where he pitched his economic plans, talked about AIG and gave a glimpse of his family's new life in the White House. Obama also sat down in the Oval Office for an interview with "60 Minutes."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs noted Monday that Obama's recent television appearances and travel allow him to "address directly with the American people the challenges that the country faces and the choices that he's working on with Congress to -- to put our economy back on track and put the nation back on firmer footing."
Obama used his first presidential press conference Feb. 9 to urge Congress to pass the stimulus plan and issued the harsh warning that a failure to act would worsen the economic crisis, calling it "not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill recession."
Nearly two months later, he has signed the stimulus legislation, has unveiled his plan to help homeowners, rolled out a program for small business loans and provided a more detailed plan for bailing out banks of those toxic assets -- all key elements of his overall economic strategy that he pointed to tonight.
In an ABC News/Washington Post poll from Feb. 22, Obama had a 68 percent approval rating and 60 percent of Americans approved of the way he was handling the economy.
But it is not an entirely rosy picture for the White House, which seemed to be caught flat-footed with the news of the AIG executive bonuses. A Gallup poll last week found that 59 percent of Americans were outraged about the bonuses, but 54 percent of those polled were satisfied with the way Obama has handled the controversy.
White House Aims for Eyeballs
The White House aimed to reach the maximum number of viewers tuning in to this evening's Q&A with reporters.
The decision to hold the press conference on a Tuesday night was almost certainly by design.
Tuesday is generally one of the biggest nights on television, with two of the week's Top 5 most-watched shows (Fox's "American Idol" and CBS' "NCIS") airing at 8 p.m., and ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" following at 9 p.m.
Obama has held both of his presidential news conferences in prime time, in stark contrast to his predecessor. Former President Bush held four press conferences in TV's prime-time hours, out of 47 total.
ABC News' Martha Raddatz and Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.