Video: Obama: Time to build the 21st century economy

msnbc.com news services
updated 1/8/2009 3:54:40 PM ET 2009-01-08T20:54:40

President-elect Barack Obama urged Congress Thursday to work with him "day and night, on weekends if necessary" to approve the largest taxpayer-funded stimulus ever, warning in almost apocalyptic terms that a dire economic future was certain without it.

Obama's speech, an extraordinary move for a president-in-waiting that reflected the grim urgency of the times, came amid a flurry of new activity in the negotiations on Capitol Hill over the massive proposal's details. And not long after Obama spoke, some senators from his own party criticized his plan to include big tax cuts.

Emerging from a private meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, several Democrats expressed deep skepticism that the kind of business and individual tax cuts Obama has been discussing would do much to create jobs or increase consumer spending.

Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota said a proposed $3,000 tax credit for companies that hire or retrain workers would do little to spur job creation if those companies' products still weren't selling. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said he doubted that a tax cut giving workers only about $10 to $20 more per week would change purchase patterns.

Meanwhile, Obama's economic advisers were on Capitol Hill briefing Democratic lawmakers on details of the president-elect's plan. And the Senate Democratic caucus planned a late afternoon meeting, followed by a news conference by Majority Leader Harry Reid and other caucus leaders.

Some Republicans were critical of Obama's plan, though they agreed on the need for a stimulus.

Making a case for action, Obama warned in his speech that "a bad situation could become dramatically worse" if Washington doesn't go far enough. He talked of the possibility of double-digit unemployment and $1 trillion in lost economic activity, stark predictions that recalled the days of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

But, he said, "We are still the nation that has overcome great fears and improbable odds. If we act with the urgency and seriousness that this moment requires, I know that we can do it again."

Since his November election, Obama has deferred to President George W. Bush on foreign policy matters such as the Middle East. But, with the economic situation worsening, Obama has waded in deeply on that front, an issue certain to define and dominate his early presidency.

It was the fourth day in a row that he had made a pitch for a huge infusion of taxpayer dollars to revive the sinking economy he will inherit from Bush.

Obama's events have increasingly taken on the trappings and air of the presidency. Thursday's speech — coming 12 days before he takes over at the White House — was a particularly showy move. Presidents-elect typically stick to naming administration appointments and otherwise staying in the background during the transition period between Election Day and Inauguration Day, but Obama has clearly made the calculation that a nation anxious about its economic outlook needs to hear from him differently and more frequently.

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The president-elect cast blame on "an era of profound irresponsibility that stretched from corporate boardrooms to the halls of power in Washington."

Obama shed no new light on the details of his plan that could cost as much as $775 billion over two years. And, he said little about the unprecedented red ink and rising debt confronting the government, even after spending days reassuring the public and Congress that he is committed to tackling long-term deficits once the economy rebounds.

But he laid out goals of doubling the production of alternative energy over three years, making 75 percent of federal buildings and two million homes more energy efficient, computerizing all medical records in five years, expanding broadband networks and updating schools and universities.

"It's a plan that represents not just new policy but a whole new approach to meeting our most urgent challenges," he said at George Mason University in suburban Washington.

Obama's economic team is considering a package, half of which would be devoted to spending ranging from infrastructure to assistance to states. About 40 percent — roughly $300 billion — would be tax cuts for individuals and businesses, and about 10 percent would be spent on assistance to unemployed workers.

Governors of six states and mayors of 14 cities — a bipartisan audience that came from as far away as Minnesota and Utah to be among the few hundred in attendance — listened to the speech that lasted less than a half hour. The group remained silent until light applause at the end.

Elsewhere, there was more grim economic news.

A government report showed that the number of people drawing jobless benefits rose last week to the highest level since 1982, demonstrating the troubles the unemployed are having in finding new jobs.

And broader unemployment figures due out Friday are expected to show that the U.S. lost a net total of 500,000 jobs in December. That would bring 2008's total job losses to 2.4 million, the first annual job loss since 2001 and the highest since 1945, though the number of jobs has more than tripled since then.

Speaking a day after the release of a stunning new deficit estimate — that the federal red ink will reach an unprecedented $1.2 trillion this year, nearly three times last year's record — Obama acknowledged some sympathy with those who "might be skeptical" of the stimulus. Vast sums already have been spent or committed by Washington in an attempt — largely unsuccessful so far — to get credit, the lifeblood of the American economy, flowing freely once again.

Such statements are meant to appeal to both parties' budget hawks, whom Obama wants to win over so that approval of a package draws wide, bipartisan support in the Democratic-led Congress.

Republicans Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Boehner of Ohio respectively warned that a trillion dollar price tag is too large and Obama should avoid setting policy with the package, as opposed to remaining focused on short term stimulus. Republicans are known to be wary, for example, on spending for long-term "green" technology programs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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