WAKARUSA, Ind. — President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the economy had stabilized and was beginning a slow recovery, telling NBC News in an exclusive interview that it was now his job to “make sure that ordinary people have some relief.”
Speaking with Chuck Todd, NBC’s chief White House correspondent and political director, Obama answered questions about the economy, health care and unemployment benefits that were submitted this week by readers of msnbc.com.
His message — as it was during a speech to a gathering of community leaders here to announce an ambitious program of manufacturing grants — was that his goal was an ambitious one: not just to “rescue” struggling American cities, but also to give recession-damaged towns like Wakarusa and nearby Elkhart the tools to “reinvent” themselves.
It was Obama’s third trip since he became president to the Elkhart region, whose fate he said was “absolutely” entwined with his own. Since his presidential campaign, Obama has essentially adopted Elkhart as a bellwether for how the country and his programs are doing during the recession.
“When I talk about a new foundation built around a clean energy economy, innovation and science, revamping our education system, making sure that we’ve got a health care system that’s not a drag on the economy — all of those things are designed to set up the pillars, the foundations, for a community like Elkhart to rebuild itself,” Obama said.
‘You have seen the economy stabilize’
In recent days, the administration has pointed to economic indicators that it says suggest the economy is slowly beginning to recover. For Obama, the challenge is to connect directly with Americans to persuade them to remain optimistic while they wait for that recovery to take hold.
“Obviously, the unemployment rate is still elevated,” he said in the interview. But “you have seen the economy stabilize.”
Still, Obama acknowledged that many Americans were unhappy with the pace of recovery under his $788 billion economic stimulus program, saying the frustrations of people like Jennifer Holderread of Elkhart were “legitimate.”
Holderread wanted to know when the recovery would filter down to ordinary Americans like her, asking, “Why are big businesses coming in ahead of the people of this country?”
Part of the problem, Obama said, is that Americans have lumped all of the federal government’s economic programs with the stimulus, so that difficulties with separate initiatives — like the bank bailout that began under President George W. Bush and the automotive “cash for clunkers” rebates — were inaccurately attributed to the stimulus act and blamed on him.
“I think that it is important for us to emphasize, No. 1, that the stimulus or the recovery bill is all about tax cuts to ordinary Americans, 95 percent of working families,” Obama insisted.
“But I know that when people think about how government spent its money, what has gotten a lot of publicity is the banks, the auto companies, and that is something [where] people don’t see concrete effects,” he said.
“So it is our job to make sure they know that almost everything we are doing right now is designed to stabilize the economy but also to make sure that ordinary people have some relief.”
Scott Ferguson, another msnbc.com reader, who wanted to know how “raising taxes on anyone during a deep recession is going to help the economy turn around.” Obama said he had not, in fact, approved tax increases and would not.
“What I would say to Scott is his economics are right — you don’t raise taxes in a recession,” Obama said. “That would just take more demand out of the economy and put businesses in a further hole.”
Democrats to go it alone on health care?
Todd also asked the president about other topics:
- Obama said he had briefly spoken with former President Bill Clinton, who returned Tuesday from North Korea after negotiating a pardon and freedom for two U.S. journalists jailed by the regime of Kim Jong-il . He said he was looking forward to speaking at length with Clinton to get his assessment of Kim’s health and the stability of his government.
- Obama defended the “cash for clunkers” program , which was suspended last week after officials projected that it would run out of money. He said there was nothing wrong with the program beyond the fact it “worked much better than even the sponsors imagined.”
- The president promised again to enact significant changes in the health care system. Answering a question from Kenneth Cowan of Seymour, Ind., Obama said he still hoped for a bipartisan approach but that if congressional Republicans continued to fight him, “some time in September we are just going to have to make an assessment” about whether to ram through a Democratic-only bill.
But the bulk of the interview was devoted to the economy, which was why the president was in to Wakarusa to begin with.
“The most important thing we are going to have to do is to help Elkhart reinvent itself,” he said. “... If I’m successful at the end of four years, I will be able to look back and say Elkhart has not just come back from the brink but is actually poised to move forward in the 21st century.”
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints