Saying “we are off to a good start, but it is just a start,” President Barack Obama marked his 100th day in office Wednesday by laying the groundwork for a “New Foundation for growth” that would support a recession-wracked economy that was “built on a pile of sand.”
Obama used a prime-time news conference Wednesday evening in Washington to reassure Americans that the country was on the right track.
“We are off to a good start, but it is just a start,” Obama said. “I am proud of what we have achieved, but I am not content. I am pleased with our progress, but I am not satisfied.”
“Even as we clear away the wreckage of this recession, I have also said that we cannot go back to an economy that is built on a pile of sand — on inflated home prices and maxed-out credit cards, on overleveraged banks and outdated regulations that allowed the recklessness of a few to threaten the prosperity of us all,” the president said.
“We must lay a New Foundation for growth — a foundation that will strengthen our economy and help us compete in the 21st century,” he said, only hours after the Senate voted to approve a nonbinding budget resolution that mirrors most of Obama’s previously stated priorities.
The phrase “New Foundation” was capitalized in the text of Obama’s remarks, as though the administration hoped it would be adopted as an identifying slogan for his presidency.
No need for swine flu ‘panic’
The president opened by promising Americans that his government was doing “everything we can” to counter the spread of swine flu, which the World Health Organization classified Wednesday as a category 5 emergency, the second-highest level.
He repeated his controversial recommendation earlier this week that schools where cases of swine flu had been confirmed should consider closing, and he urged parents and businesses to “think about contingency plans” to deal with that many children suddenly left at home during the school year.
He ruled out, for now, closing the southern U.S. border with Mexico, where the outbreak originated. He likened such measures to “closing the barn door after the horses are out, because we already have cases here in the United States.”
Those remarks, however, came before the Mexican government announced late Wednesday that it was suspending all nonessential government and business services through May 5. There was no immediate response from the White House.
Until the picture becomes clearer, Obama said, his best advice was what doctors had been telling Americans for days: Wash your hands regularly and stay home if you are sick.
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And he praised his predecessor, President George W. Bush, for putting in place a sound infrastructure for dealing with a pandemic, especially its program to to stockpile medication.
'Waterboarding is torture'
But he obliquely slammed Bush in response to a question about the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques when questioning detainees from the U.S. war in Iraq.
Obama did not directly say whether he believed the Bush administration “sanctioned torture,” but he came close to endorsing that viewpoint.
“What I’ve said, and what I will repeat, is waterboarding violates our ideals,” he said. “I do believe waterboarding is torture.”
Stopping such practices, he said, “will makes us stronger and will make us safer over the long term.”
Obama said he was “very comfortable” with his decision to ban waterboarding, an interrogation tactic intended to make the subject believe he is drowning.
“Part of what makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy,” he said.
President diverted to other issues
When Obama opened up the forum to questions, he struggled to stay on his economic message as reporters consistently asked him about other issues.
Obama acknowledged that the return of what he called “spectacular bombings” in Iraq was a cause for serious concern, which he said highlighted the need to “keep the pressure up, not only militarily but also diplomatically.
Obama also said he was optimistic that Chrysler Corp. could remain a “going concern” without filing for bankruptcy. “I don’t want to run auto companies,” he said.
Asked about the disquiet over his invitation from Notre Dame University to speak at its commencement exercises, Obama took the opportunity to deliver a ringing endorsement of abortion rights. The university, a Catholic institution, has been inundated with protests from alumni and some Catholic leaders for its decision to invite the president.
“The reason I’m pro-choice is because I don’t think women take that position casually," Obama said. “I think they are in a better position to make these decisons than members of Congress or presidents of the United States.”
And he said the immigration system was “broken,” declaring that he sought “a more thoughful approach than just raids of a handful of workers” to bolster public confidence in the security of the country’s borders.
‘Doing what we’d said we’d do’
When he finally was asked about his economic rescue plans, more than 45 minutes into the news conference, it was to answer a challenge about what his administration was doing to address unemployment among minority communities.
Obama stuck to his long-stated position that the nation’s pain was being felt across all communities, so remedies should not be targeted at specific groups.
“Keep in mind that every step we’e taking is designed to help all people,” he said.
He acknowledged, however, that unemployment, the housing crisis and the high costs of health care “disporportionally affect” minority communities. “The folks who are most vulnerable are likely to be most helped,” he said.
“If the economy is strong, that will lift all boats, as long as it is supported by strategies around college affordability, job training [and] tax cuts for the middle class,” he said. “I’m confident that will help the African-American community live out the American dream at the same time it’s helping communities all across the country.”
Obama’s goal going in, aides told MSNBC, had been to drive home the message he delivered Wednesday morning at a town-hall-style gathering in Arnold, Mo., where he kicked off a daylong media blitz to celebrate his first 100 days as president, even as his administration mocked attention to the milestone as an artificial “Hallmark holiday.”
In remarks that were reminiscent of campaign stump speeches, his February address to a joint session of Congress and a recent event at Georgetown University in Washington, Obama rebutted Republican criticism that he had taken on too much too quickly, telling the audience that he had inherited a nation facing huge challenges that could not be dealt with through “half-measures.”
Since January, the president has:
- Relaxed restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.
- Ordered the closing of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
- Ordered most U.S. troops out of Iraq and more U.S. troops into Afghanistan.
- Pushed through his economic stimulus plan, a mortgage relief plan, a second Wall Street bailout and his plan to redeem so-called toxic assets.
- Approved massive lending to struggling Detroit automakers.
Up next, his administration has said, are climate change, education reform and universal health care.
Austin Goolsbee, an economic adviser to Obama, said in an interview with CNBC that Obama knew he had to strike a balance.
“The president has been totally clear-eyed as he’s gone along, not trying to oversell glimmers of hope or where we are,” Goolsbee said.
The American people “recognize that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” but he said they could also be confident that “we’re finally on a path that puts some light at the end of the tunnel and we can get out of this thing if we stick with the policies.”
NBC News correspondents Athena Jones, in Arnold, Mo., and Steve Handelsman contributed to this report.