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Taking on critics, Obama puts aside unity talk

President Obama has made a show of reaching across the aisle since taking office, inviting three Republicans into his cabinet. But by Monday, he sounded like a candidate back on the trail,
/ Source: The New York Times

President Obama has made a show of reaching across the aisle since taking office, inviting three Republicans into his cabinet and wining and dining other opposition leaders. But by Monday, he sounded like a candidate back on the trail, railing against the status quo and dismissing critics as apostles of a failed philosophy.

Three weeks into his tenure, Mr. Obama acknowledged that his effort to change the political climate in Washington had yielded little. He made clear that he had all but given up hope of securing a bipartisan consensus behind his $800 billion economic recovery package, arguing that the urgency of the economic crisis had at least for now outweighed the need for unity.

“I’m happy to get good ideas from across the political spectrum, from Democrats and Republicans,” he said at the Monday night news conference. “What I won’t do is return to the failed theories of the last eight years that got us into this fix in the first place, because those theories have been tested and they have failed. And that’s part of what the election in November was all about.”

The sharp tone at the news conference and at a whooping election-style rally in Indiana earlier in the day signaled a shift by the White House in the fractious debate over his package of spending and tax breaks.

With no Republicans in the House voting for the economic plan and just three in the Senate, Mr. Obama on Monday began a week of barnstorming stops that will also take him to Florida and Illinois to create momentum behind his program.

Barbed critique
Gone were the soothing notes of the last three weeks. Authoritative and unsmiling, gloomy rather than inspirational, Mr. Obama cast the nation’s economy in dire light and offered a barbed point-by-point critique of the Republican argument that his plan would just create more government jobs and authorize a raft of new wasteful spending.

“It’s a little hard for me to take criticism from folks about this recovery package after they presided over a doubling of the national debt,” he said at the news conference. “I’m not sure they have a lot of credibility when it comes to fiscal responsibility.”

As Air Force One took him to Elkhart, Ind., where the unemployment rate has tripled to more than 15 percent in the last year, Mr. Obama and his aides sought again to reclaim the mantle of change, a theme central to his election victory.

His advisers depicted the president as the champion of people neglected by Washington politics.

“One thing that we learned over two years is that there’s a whole different conversation in Washington than there is out here,” said David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser. “If I had listened to the conversation in Washington during the campaign for president, I would have jumped off a building about a year and a half ago.”

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, decried what he called a “myopic viewpoint in Washington,” disconnected from the troubles of the country.

“It’s illuminating because it may not necessarily be where cable television is on all of this,” Mr. Gibbs said. “But you know, we’re sort of used to that. We lost on cable television virtually every day last year. So you know, there’s a conventional wisdom to what’s going on in America via Washington and there’s the reality of what’s happening in America.”

In case Republicans doubted who was in charge, Mr. Obama wrapped himself in the mantle of his election victory. At Concord High School in Elkhart, he basked in the roar of a crowd that chanted, “Obama, Obama.” To Obama aides nostalgic for the simpler days of the campaign trail, it had a familiar feel, even if the music had changed from Stevie Wonder to “Hail to the Chief.”

The point was reinforced when the White House distributed poll numbers indicating that twice as many Americans support Mr. Obama on the economy as they do Congressional Republicans.

But Mr. Obama’s aides disregarded other surveys showing that a bare majority approves of the package of spending and tax breaks. Republicans pointed to their alternative call for deeper tax cuts as a more effective way to get money quickly into the economy.

“It is not too late to craft a bipartisan plan that creates more jobs and helps get our economy back on track, and Republicans stand ready to work with the president to do this,” Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, said after the news conference.

For his part, though, Mr. Obama seemed to suggest it was too late, and that the time for bipartisanship lay further down the road. He said he recognized that some Republicans had good-faith doubts about his program, but he also characterized some of the opposition as an effort to “test” the new president.

He vowed to continue trying to build alliances with the other party in the hope that it “will pay some dividends over the long term,” and added: “As I continue to make these overtures, over time, hopefully that will be reciprocated.”

This story, Taking on Critics, Obama Puts Aside Talk of Unity, originally appeared in The New York Times.