President Obama on Friday defended his administration's efforts to improve the economy while again lashing out at Republicans for blocking congressional action in a fiercely partisan election year.
In a wide-ranging news conference, Obama also said Mideast peace talks were worth the effort, called for religious tolerance while condemning a proposed Koran-burning by a Florida pastor and reminding Americans of Saturday's commemoration of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.. Despite reports of rising prices, Obama defended his healthcare insurance overhaul, another key GOP electoral point.
But with polls showing that Republicans are growing in popularity, Obama used his eighth formal news conference to argue the case for his economic agenda, but perhaps more importantly in this midterm election year, the political case Democrats hope will keep them in control of the Congress.
Obama defended his administration's $814-billion stimulus package and renewed his call for more spending on infrastructure, one of his recent proposals. Unlike many Democrats, Obama said he didn't shy away from using the word "stimulus," which Republicans are trying to turn into a political curse.
"No doubt everything we try to do is to stimulate growth and hiring," Obama said "Isn't that what I should be doing? I assume that is what the Republicans think we should be doing." He promised to "keep on trying to stimulate growth and jobs as long as I am president of the United States."
Obama acknowledged that economic progress has been slow and that voters are unhappy.
"For all the progress we've made, we're not there yet. And that means people are frustrated and why people are angry," he said. "Because I am president, and the Democrats have control the House and Senate, it's understandable that people are saying, 'What have you done?"'
But the president was firm in blaming Republicans for standing against his proposed bill to help small businesses and for their position that the Bush-era tax cuts, including those for the rich, be extended beyond this year. Obama proposed that Democrats and Republicans immediately pass what both sides already agree to: extending the cuts for individuals earning less than $200,000 a year and families earning less than $250,000.
"Why hold it up? Why hold the middle class hostage?" Obama said. "Let's get done what we all agree on ... we can have a further conversation" on the rest, he said.
Obama began the news conference by saying that Saturday's ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington should be a day of remembrance and service. The scene of the New York attack has also become the site of a controversy over a proposed Muslim mosque and community center, blocks away from the former World Trade Center. Obama, and many New York leaders, support the construction, which polls show is opposed by a large majority of voters.
"This country stands for the proposition that all men and women are created equal" and have inalienable rights including freedom of religion, Obama said. If a church, synagogue or temple can be built at a site, then so should a mosque be allowed, he said.
"We are not at war against Islam," Obama said. "We are at war against terrorist organizations that have distorted Islam."
Obama was again asked about the effort by Florida pastor Terry Jones to burn copies of the Koran in protest of the 9/11 attacks. Administration officials and generals have condemned the planned burning, which has led to anti-U.S. violence and protests in several Muslim countries.
"The idea that we would burn the sacred text of somebody else's religion is contrary" to American principles, said Obama, who earlier this week called it a "stunt." "My hope is that this individual prays on it and refrains from doing it."
Obama also defended his administration's efforts to jump-start the Mideast peace talks by fostering face-to-face negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Groups such Hamas, which controls Palestinian Gaza, oppose the talks and have praised terror attacks designed to block the effort.
Obama said there were large hurdles in the talks, but said peace was worth the effort.
But it was the economy and politics that dominated the early questioning. Obama praised Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich for saying that he wouldn't support the GOP effort to prevent the small-business bill from coming to the floor. The time for games was over, the senator said.
"I couldn't agree more," Obama said on Friday.
The economy and how to reinvigorate it has been the theme for the week as Obama traveled to Milwaukee and Cleveland to push his plans. He has proposed another $50 billion in spending to build infrastructure, along with tax breaks and incentives to business as part of a plan to bring down the jobless rate, now at 9.6% nationally.