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In volatile time, Obama strikes tone for crisis

On Tuesday night, Americans saw in Barack Obama echoes from early on in the presidential campaign — placid and unsmiling, the professor in chief offering familiar arguments in long paragraphs.
/ Source: The New York Times

For just under an hour on Tuesday night, Americans saw not the fiery and inspirational speaker who riveted the nation in his address to Congress last month, or the conversational president who warmly engaged Americans in talks across the country, or even the jaunty and jokey president who turned up on Jay Leno.

Instead, in his second prime-time news conference from the White House, it was Barack Obama the lecturer, a familiar character from early in the campaign. Placid and unsmiling, he was the professor in chief, offering familiar arguments in long paragraphs — often introduced with the phrase, “as I said before” — sounding like the teacher speaking in the stillness of a classroom where students are restlessly waiting for the ring of the bell.

The session in the East Room came at a volatile moment for the new president as he sought to quell Democratic misgivings about his ambitious economic agenda and deflect strong Republican opposition. Speaking past the reporters in the room to the tens of millions of viewers tuning in at home, he tried to reassure the nation that he could solve the crisis that has gripped the economy for more than a year.

“We’re beginning to see signs of progress,” he said, calling for a “renewed confidence that a better day will come.”

As balky senators from his own party began carving some of the signature proposals out of his budget, Mr. Obama signaled that he could compromise in the short term on a middle-class tax cut and a cap on carbon emissions. But he indicated that he would stand firm on four top priorities, insisting that Congress make progress in those areas.

“We never expected when we printed out our budget that they would simply Xerox it and vote on it,” Mr. Obama said, expressing flexibility about the details as long as his central goals were met. “The bottom line is that I want to see health care, energy, education and serious efforts to reduce our budget deficit.”

At a time of anger and anxiety in the country, Mr. Obama showed little emotion. He rarely cracked a joke or raised his voice. Even when he declared himself upset over the $165 million in bonuses paid this month by the American International Group despite its taxpayer bailout, his voice sounded calm and unbothered. “I’m as angry as anybody about those bonuses,” he said, adding that executives needed to learn that “enriching themselves on the taxpayers’ dime is inexcusable.”

To a certain extent, Mr. Obama’s demeanor could have been calculated — an effort, aides said, to lower the temperature after a supercharged week and nudge the country toward what Mr. Obama considers the more pressing issues of fixing the banking system and reviving the economy. Even after excoriating the A.I.G. executives, he cautioned that “the rest of us can’t afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit.”

The only time he seemed irritated came when he was asked why the attorney general of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo, seemed to have more success getting A.I.G. executives to return some bonuses than his own administration. Pressed on why he did not express outrage immediately upon learning of the bonuses, Mr. Obama said sharply, “Well, it took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”

Even on one of the most polarizing subjects in American life, race relations, Mr. Obama deviated little from the median. Asked about his impact as the first African-American president, he said the nation experienced “justifiable pride” at his inauguration.

“But that lasted about a day,” he said, in perhaps his only joke of the night. “Right now the American people are judging me exactly the way I should be judged and that is, are we taking the steps to improve liquidity in the financial markets, create jobs, get businesses to reopen, keep America safe?”

He showed his usual comfort with a wide array of subjects, even as he excluded the nation’s big newspapers from the questioning in favor of a more eclectic mix. He signaled that the new conservative government in Israel could make achieving a peace deal more difficult. He expressed patience about dealing with Iran. And he defended his proposal to increase the tax burden on the wealthy.

This was Mr. Obama as more enervating than energizing, a reminder of the way he could be in his early days as a presidential candidate, before he became defined by rapturous crowds.

“He doesn’t seem to emote any real urgency or anger,” said Matthew Dowd, a former Republican strategist who has often been complimentary of the new president. “So at times it comes across as a bit distant and intellectual.”

Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant, said: “He said all the right things. But sometimes his confidence makes him seem flat.”

Still, the news conference came as Mr. Obama is moving from the flush of his inauguration into the grind of Congressional negotiations and shifting public opinions.

Over the past month, he has gone from offering near apocalyptic views of the economy to expressing optimism in its underlying strength.

Appearing on “60 Minutes,” he laughed in talking about the problems he faced, leading his interviewer to ask if he was punch-drunk.

That was not a question that seemed pertinent Tuesday. He did demonstrate an ability to take a punch, though, and to deliver one. Even beforehand, Republicans criticized his economic agenda, noting that it would amass more debt than the 43 previous presidents combined. Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, called for “a do-over” on the budget.

“I just think that this might be the most irresponsible piece of legislation I’ve seen in my legislative career,” Mr. Boehner said.

Mr. Obama fired back hours later: “Some of the Republican critics have a short memory, because as I recall, I’m inheriting a $1.3 trillion deficit, annual deficit, from them.”

But his Democratic allies are more immediately troublesome as they busily dismantle his budget and rewrite it to their own taste. Mr. Obama, who is scheduled to visit Capitol Hill on Wednesday to meet with Senate Democrats, indicated that plans for a middle-class tax cut and a market-based cap on carbon emissions did not necessarily have to be included in the final version of the budget.

Instead, he said he could pursue them independently. The $787 billion stimulus plan already passed by Congress authorized a $400 tax credit for two years, so he has time to find ways to finance it permanently. And he suggested that Congress could take steps toward alternative energy in the budget without necessarily incorporating the so-called cap-and-trade system because committees could work on that separately.

Throughout his time in public life, Mr. Obama has confronted questions about whether he was too detached, too analytical, too intellectual. In the campaign, he was as likely to be compared to Adlai E. Stevenson as he was to John F. Kennedy. And if there is a pattern to Mr. Obama, it is to lumber through periods like this and then become intense and animated at the first sign of trouble.

Over the long term, Mr. Obama’s calm has served him well, in particular at the critical moment in the campaign when the economy began its steep slide. “That is one of the things people like about him,” Mr. Trippi said.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting.

This story, In a Volatile Time, Obama Strikes a New Tone for Crisis, originally appeared in the New York Times.