Aiming to assert control over the nation's economic debate, President Barack Obama on Tuesday warned Americans eager for good news that "by no means are we out of the woods" and argued his broad domestic agenda is the path to recovery.
In a speech at Georgetown University, Obama aimed to juggle his recent glass-half-full takes on the economy with a determination to not be stamped as naive in the face lingering problems. He summarized actions his administration has taken to steady the limping economy and coupled that with a fresh overview of his domestic goals.
The speech, which key aides had signaled in advance would not contain any major announcements, came as Obama nears his symbolic 100-day mark in office, important because that has become a traditional marker by which to judge new administrations.
"There is no doubt that times are still tough," Obama said. "But from where we stand, for the very first time, we are beginning to see glimmers of hope. And beyond that, way off in the distance, we can see a vision of an America's future that is far different than our troubled economic past."
Obama's message came on a day of conflicting economic indicators and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's suggestion that the recession may at last be bottoming out.
It would have been difficult to make that case based on a report the government released earlier Tuesday showing that retail sales plummeted by 1.1 percent in March, a performance much poorer than experts had anticipated. At the same time, wholesale prices dropped sharply, a strong indication that inflation appears to pose little threat to the economy.
In a speech at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Bernanke talked of flickering signs of improvement, citing recent data on home and auto sales, home building and consumer spending.
But the government's broader message — that a full turnaround might be a long time coming — may not be welcome news for a weary U.S. public.
Obama, in fact, said in his speech that a complete recovery depends on building a new foundation for the U.S. economy and making changes in the political landscape. And he said anew that rules governing the financial system must be made compatible with Digital Age technology and innovation, telling Congress that "I expect a bill to arrive on my desk for signature before the year is out."
He also said the economy must be transformed from one less dependent on a risk-obsessed financial sector and more on clean energy, good education and health care costs brought under control.
Sand vs. stone
"We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand," he said, invoking a Biblical reference to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. "We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest, where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad."
Obama also said the problem is exacerbated by politicians with an outsized interest in scoring points and an impatient media.
"When a crisis hits," he said, "there is all too often a lurch from shock to trance, with everyone responding to the tempest of the moment until the furor has died down and the media coverage has moved on to something else, instead of confronting the major challenges that will shape our future in a sustained and focused way."
"This can't be one of those times," Obama said.
Obama put his fledgling presidency on the line when he advocated sweeping new government intervention and spending to right the troubled economic conditions. Shortly after taking office he signed a $787 billion package intended to boost the economy and his administration also has unveiled a slew of other programs aimed to right the troubled home, banking and auto sectors.
"Taken together, these actions are starting to generate signs of economic progress," he said, citing canceled government-sector layoffs, new clean-energy industry hires, a spate of refinancings, and signs of increased credit flows.
But, the president said, "2009 will continue to be a difficult year." He predicted more job losses, foreclosures, and gyrating stock markets.
The president devoted a significant portion of his speech to defending actions he has taken in the face of criticism he has heard mainly from Republicans — but also from some of the more conservative members of own Democratic Party — that he has "been spending with reckless abandon, pushing a liberal social agenda while mortgaging our children's future."
Not so, Obama said.
"The last thing a government should do in the middle of a recession is to cut back on spending," the president said.
As for the long-term, increasingly dire federal budget deficit picture, he said that investments in new industries and economic foundations is crucial to future success and even to reducing the deficit. "Chronically slow growth will not help our long-term budget situation," he said.
The president also defended the massive and unpopular government programs enacted under the Bush administration and expanded under Obama to bail out banks and other financial institutions. He acknowledged that sending money directly to taxpayers might be more palatable — but said it wouldn't be as effective.
"The truth is that a dollar of capital in a bank can actually result in eight or ten dollars of loans to families and businesses, a multiplier effect that can ultimately lead to a faster pace of economic growth," Obama said.