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Obama puts the heat on Republicans

He says the 'half steps' now urged by the GOP for the stimulus bill are the same ideas that led to the financial crisis.

February 05, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — President Obama abruptly changed tactics Wednesday in his bid to revive the economy, setting aside his bipartisan stance and pointedly blaming Republicans for demanding what he cast as discredited "piecemeal measures."

Obama's comments were a marked departure from the conciliatory tone he has maintained as he courted Republican votes for his stimulus package through compromise. Against the wishes of his own party, Obama crafted a plan that relied heavily on tax cuts rooted in Republican economic doctrine.

But in an unusual opinion piece in today's Washington Post, and in remarks he made at two White House appearances, the president seemed to acknowledge that his approach wasn't working.

The shift in message comes amid signs of trouble for Obama's $800-billion-plus stimulus bill. Not a single Republican voted for the measure last week in the House, and even some moderate Democrats in the Senate have expressed discomfort over the escalating cost.

Moderates from both parties have complained about spending projects, such as smoking-cessation programs, that don't seem geared to giving the economy a jolt.

While signing a children's health insurance bill in the East Room of the White House, Obama referred to the results of the November election. It was a reminder to Republicans -- and perhaps even some wayward Democrats -- that Obama won solidly and still enjoys a high approval rating.

"Now, let me say this," Obama said. "In the past few days, I've heard criticisms of this plan that frankly echo the very same failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis in the first place -- the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems, that we can address this enormous crisis with half steps and piecemeal measures and tinkering around the edges, that we can ignore fundamental challenges, like the high cost of healthcare, and still expect our economy and our country to thrive.

"I reject these theories," he continued. "And, by the way, so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change."

Obama also sought to sway public opinion in his favor through his newspaper column, reiterating many of the same points.

"In recent days, there have been misguided criticisms of this plan that echo the failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis -- the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems," Obama wrote.

That was a clear jab at Republicans, who have an alternative proposal to jump-start the economy that depends primarily on tax cuts.

Obama's partisan turn entails a calculated risk. He cannot afford to see the stimulus bill fail. Without it, he warns, an already painful recession will worsen. With the stimulus in place, he says, the nation will create or save up to 4 million jobs.

Briefing reporters on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs did not rebut suggestions that Obama was opting for a more combative tone.

By failing to take dramatic action, "we'll find ourselves worse off than where we are now," Gibbs said. "We have to take those bold steps."

As he publicly ratchets up pressure on the opposition, Obama is doing some private arm-twisting. He met Wednesday with two Senate Republicans and a Democrat considered to be key moderates: Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both Maine Republicans, and Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat.

The three are part of a group of senators seeking to "scrub" the bill to remove programs that are not likely to give the economy an immediate boost.

Snowe, who spoke with reporters afterward, said there may be $100 billion in programs that would have to be removed before some of the moderates could support the measure. Obama was "very amenable" to her suggestions, she said.

Politically, the stimulus is the first major test of Obama's presidency. The bill is likely to pass because of the overwhelming Democratic congressional majority. A defeat, however, would end a political honeymoon that already may be foreshortened because of the dust-up over a trio of Cabinet nominees with tax problems.

But if Obama wins by eschewing the bipartisanship he preached throughout his nearly two-year campaign, he could jeopardize prospects for a healthcare overhaul, energy transformation and other projects he is planning.

For the moment, Democrats are looking to recapture momentum. In the Senate, Republicans have been mounting a drive to replace the bill's spending programs with tax provisions. On Wednesday, the Senate approved a GOP-backed amendment for a tax credit of up to $15,000 for home buyers.

The credit doubles the tax break under existing law, which applies only to primary residences -- not to second homes. Proposed by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), the credit is expected to cost about $19 billion.

As the Senate debate continued, Democrats parried GOP efforts to cut spending in favor of more tax breaks.

"American public opinion is seeing this for what it is: a spending bill, not a stimulus bill, and I think it's swinging in our direction," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Fox News.

Obama wants the Senate to vote before opposition hardens. At one time, proponents of the bill had hoped it would be passed and ready for him to sign when he was sworn in Jan. 20. Now, Obama hopes Congress completes action before a recess at the end of next week.

In virtually every public appearance, Obama tries to convey a sense of urgency.

"A failure to act, and act now, will turn crisis into a catastrophe and guarantee a longer recession, a less robust recovery and a more uncertain future," he warned at another White House appearance.

--

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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