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Obama rejects criticism that he's been too hard on Wall Street

The president acknowledges that measures taken to stabilize the economy haven't worked as fast as hoped but says he has 'absolutely not' vilified or enacted policies harmful to the business community.

September 20, 2010|By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau
  • President Obama answers a question as he sits with moderator John Harwood at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., during a town hall discussion on jobs and the economy.
President Obama answers a question as he sits with moderator John Harwood… (Stephen J Boitano / CNBC…)

President Obama sought to challenge critics who say his administration has been hostile to businesses, arguing in a televised forum Monday that measures he has taken to stabilize the economy have boosted the private sector.

During an event styled as a town-hall meeting on business news channel CNBC, the president acknowledged that the economic recovery was not proceeding as quickly as he would like. But he said he has "absolutely not" vilified or enacted policies harmful to the business community.

"As a consequence of reckless decisions that had been made, the economy was on the verge of collapse. Those same businesses now are profitable; the financial markets are stabilized," he said. "The only thing that we've said is that we've got to make sure that we're not doing some of the same things that we were doing in the past that got into this mess in the first place."

While some have accused him of being hostile to Wall Street, Obama said a "big chunk" of the nation "feels like I've been too soft on Wall Street."

"It's very hard to find evidence of anything we've done that's designed to squash business as opposed to promote business," he said. "What I've tried to do is just try to be practical."

Even as he pointed to a new report marking the official end of the recession, Obama acknowledged the "understandable" frustration of many who feel the economy has barely improved.

"The hole was so deep that a lot of people out there are still hurting, and probably some folks here in the audience are still having a tough time," he said. "So the question then becomes, what can we now put in place to make sure that the trend lines continue in a positive direction, as opposed to going back in the negative direction?"

Part of that discussion included the debate over Bush-era tax cuts. Obama tread familiar ground, saying he would only support extending relief for the middle class. He did not answer specifically whether he would rule out a compromise to allow tax cuts to sunset only on those earning more than $1 million.

During the hour-long event, Obama offered rare commentary on the "tea party" movement. America, he said, has "a noble tradition of being helpfully skeptical about government," but that activists this year have been "misidentifying sort of who the culprits are." Today's federal government is actually "less intrusive" than it was during Ronald Reagan's presidency, he said.

He also challenged candidates running on a tea party-favored platform of smaller government to be specific about what they would do if elected.

"It's not enough just to say, 'Get control of spending.' I think it's important for you to say, 'You know, I'm willing to cut veterans' benefits,' or, 'I'm willing to cut Medicare or Social Security benefits,' or, 'I'm willing to see these taxes go up.'"

Republicans criticized the president for what they said was a PR campaign that misrepresents his failed record.

"The president's insistence on raising taxes for small businesses is only further proof that Democrats will never let good, pro-growth economic policies get in the way of the liberal dogma that has resulted in record-breaking deficits and sustained high unemployment," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele said in a statement.

On other topics, Obama said he has not made any determinations about personnel going forward, and praised his economic team as doing an "outstanding job." Asked about any "course correction" coming, he only talked of working to elevate the level of debate between the parties.

"It's not just a matter of implementing good policies, but also setting a better tone so that everybody feels like we can start cooperating again instead of going at loggerheads all the time," he said.

Monday's event comes as Obama is set to spend much of his week focused on foreign policy. He will travel to New York on Wednesday to attend the United Nations General Assembly, and will speak to the body on Thursday.

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