Follow President Obama’s press conference here live from 11am Washington time, with Washington Bureau Chief Edward Luce.
12:23pm - Most of the pundits expected a press conference that would be more dominated by the president’s economic woes in the context of the upcoming mid-term elections. Certainly that was a key part of it – and the least convincing in terms of the president’s performance.
But in the event, the real theme that emerged was about 9/11, Afghanistan, the crazy pastor in Florida and the need to treat American Muslims as brothers and sisters. It was striking how good, impassioned and convincing President Obama was on the second half of the 77 minute press conference that was dominated by the Islam theme (for want of a better heading) against the very familiar and unconvincing answers he gave on the economy in the first half. As the conference moved from the first to the second, President Obama appeared to pick up the energy, verve and persuasiveness that had been so lacking in the first half.
12:19pm - Question about the wisdom of allowing a “mosque” to be built near Ground Zero and another on the Florida pastor [the White House's single question rule appears to honoured only in the breach]. Interesting how many questions are around 9/11, Islam and the war on terror. More than this reporter would have expected.
Obama: “If you could build a church on the site, or a synagogue or a Hindu temple then you should be able to build a mosque. I recognise the extraordinary sensitivities around 9/11. I can only imagine the continuing pain and anguish [of the relatives of the victims of 9/11]. But I go back to what I said earlier: We are not at war against Islam, we are at war with terrorist organisations that have distorted Islam….We have to be clear about that. If we are going to successfully reduce the terrorist threat then we need all the allies we can get…..
“From the national security interest we want to be clear about who the enemy is here…….We have millions of Muslim Americans, our fellow citizens in this country – they go to school with our kids, they are our neighbours and co-workers. When we start acting as though their religion is somehow offensive: what do we say to them? [this is by far the most convincingly and rousingly delivered portion of the press conference]. We dont’ discriminate between them and us. It is just us.”
12:13pm - Ed Henry of CNN: You haven’t yet captured Osama bin Laden. Is it still a critical part of your policy to capture or kill him? Isn’t it a failure of your counter-terrorism policy that you haven’t yet done so?”
Obama laughs in frustration: “They [AQ] have been holed up in the last two years in ways that have made it harder for them to operate. They have gone deep underground….We have the best minds, the best intelligence officers and the best special forces and they have been thinking about it day and night…”
Ed Henry interrupts: Will we get another nine years of this terror threat?
Obama: “In this day and age there will always be a small group of individuals who if they are willing to die will be a threat to the American people. It is important for the American people to understand that [subtext...we can't go back to permanent "war on terror" of Bush years]. America’s strength comes from its resilience. We shouldn’t start losing who we are or overreacting…We go about our business. We are tougher than them. Our…values is what gives us strength…..It doesn’t have to completely distort us or dominate our foreign policy…….It is going to take some time.”
12:08pm - Question: Why has the civilian trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed stalled and will Guantanamo be open for another year?
Obama: “I wanted to close it sooner: we have missed that deadline. It is not for lack of trying. It is because the politics of it is difficult…..I am absolutely convinced the American justice system is strong enough to convict people accused of mass murder…We can do that. We’ve done it before.
Significance: Obama takes the opportunity to reiterate his goal of closing Gitmo and holding a civilian trial for KSM – so far, though, giving nothing on its likely venue.
“We can’t be frightened by a small number of people trying to do us harm”.
Now he moves to defending circumstances when people are tried in a military tribunal.
“I am prepared to work with Democrats and Republicans [to resolve which types of court try which kinds of people and where]. From a purely fiscal point of view: The costs of holding people in Gitmo are massively higher than holding people in a supermax prison here in the US.”
The presser has been going on for more than an hour and no signs yet of it ending.
12:03pm - Helene Cooper of NYT asks how the US can lecture Afghanistan about corruption when so much of the government in Kabul is on the US payroll.
The president conflates the question with tomorrow’s 9/11 anniversary – “We are there to ensure Afghanistan is never again used as a base for attacks on the American homeland”. He then rehearses the argument about helping Hamid Karzai set up a “broadly-based government” that can reduce corruption. He mentions an increase in anti-corruption measures in Kabul. “We are a long way from where we need to be…We are going to keep on putting pressure [on Karzai] on that front. You are perfectly right that we have to make sure we are not sending a mixed message. Let’s show that our efforts there don’t somehow seem to be giving a wink and a nod to corruption.”
He then moves to Helene Cooper’s second question on Israel on the forthcoming lapse on 26 September of the Israeli partial moratorium on new Israeli settlements. “What I have said to Prime minister Netanyahu…is that it makes sense to extend that moratorium so long as talks are moving along in a constructive way…..the politics of Netanyahu’s coalition are very difficult…. One of the things I have said to President Abbas is that you have got to show to the Israeli public that you are constructive [to make it easier for Bibi to extend the partial freeze]…….”
Again this is all boilerplate stuff – no slip-ups, very competently rendered, but unlikely to change people’s minds.
11:55am - Next question is about recent legal settlements compensating mostly African-American victims of historic discrimination that have not been funded by Congress.
Obama helpfully fills in reporters about the context of the question. He then moves to a more personal answer that begins with his career as a community organiser in Chicago. The answer is strikingly fluent compared to most of his previous ones today. “The single most important thing we can do is provide ladders to lift people up…..If we can grow the economy and create more jobs then everyone is swept up. And if the economy is shrinking then the folks who are most vulnerable are those in the poorest communities [particularly African-American]. So my central focus will be broad-based growth….”
Obama then mentions the initial successes of his education reforms, about recruiting better teachers and holding them more accountable. He also mentions his reform of student loans – ending the public subsidy, amounting to tens of billions of dollars, to the banks.
He slightly wanders off the question, but his points are well made.
11:49am – And now the president turns to the tougher question of healthcare: He rehearses the arguments about “bending the cost curve” and the need to expand insurance to the uninsured. And he says the initial phase of implementation has been smooth and widely complimented. Plus, for the first time, people with children aged up to 26 can now retain them on their healthcare plans, and those who are sick cannot be thrown off their healthcare plans by the insurance companies…..[i.e. the benefits are slowly creeping in].
Tapper tries to bring him back to the original question about Democrats running in the mid-terms.
Obama: “in an environment where we still have 9.5 per cent unemployment [in fact it's 9.6 per cent], and they’re going to be taking polls of what their constiutents are saying: that’s how political races work.” Not a very satisfactory answer. But hard to know what President Obama could say.
11:44am - Jake Tapper of ABC News: Were you concerned when Sec Bob Gates called the Pastor in Florida that you were elevating this man? And a second question on why Democrats are avoiding any mention of healthcare legislation in the campaign…This latter question a definitely unwelcome diversion.
Gist of the answer on the pastor: His plans to burn the Koran are contrary to the principles on which this country was founded. “I am also commander-in-chief and we are seeing today riots in Kabul that threaten men and women in uniform…..[burning the Koran] is the best imaginable recruiting tool for al-Qaeda……This is a way of endangering our troops…We don’t play games with that.”
11:41am - A question from a Haaretz reporter [the Israeli newspaper], again a diversion from the core topic of the day/week/month/decade but perhaps not so welcome as previous diversions: Does the Arab-Israeli peace process require President Obama’s continuing personal involvement?
President Obama gives a careful answer, reminds the questioner of Hillary Clinton’s meetings next week with Abbas and Netanyahu in the region. “The path for Israeli security and Palestinian sovereignty can only be met through negotiation…….We have engaged in some unprecedented cooperation with Israel to make sure it can deal with any external threats [unprecedented?]. Abbas came here because he understood the window for peace is closing…..Ultimately it will be up to them. We can facilitate. We can encourage…We are willing to stand behind them in their efforts….I remain hopeful but this is going to be tough….It is a risk worth taking….If these talks break down we are going to keep on trying.”
11:37am – Mr Obama continues, ”I will do everything I can to remind the American people that we are one nation under god…..As someone who relies heavily on Christian faith in my job, I understand the passions that religious faith can raise….”
Again, lots of centrist, even centre-right signalling to make up for the unavoidably partisan answers on the economic theme. This is also a constant dialectic in President Obama’s public signalling nowadays.
11:34am - Ann Kornblut of Washington Post: Why is there such suspicion of the Muslim world in America?
Again, Obama visibly relieved to escape the root canal treatment on the economy….He begins by referring back to George W. Bush’s response to 9/11 about not blaming any religion or ethnicity and professes his pride for how America handled it [good opportunity to sound post-partisan]. No mention yet of the Florida Pastor, Terry Jones.
11:32am - The whole tenor of this news conference illustrates Obama’s central and continuing dilemma. He wants to be post-partisan, or to appear to be post-partisan, but is forced by events to sound partisan. Constant tension.
11:31am - Chuck Todd of NBC: “How do you change Washington?”
Good question, given that all of the president’s previous answers have dwelled on Washington blocking sensible change.
Again fairly boilerplate answer from President Obama: “On a whole range of issues over the last 18 months we have put in place policies that are going to help the middle class……If you’re asking why haven’t I been able to create a greater spirit of cooperation in Washington, I think that’s fair. I’m as frustrated as anybody by it. When we came into office, some of the Republicans made a decision to sit on the sidelines and let the Democrats try to solve it……[in other words, it is about Republican obstructionism]…It is messy and it is frustrating.”
11:28am - Question from Bloomberg: Will you confirm Elizabeth Warren as head of the new consumer financial regulatory agency (subtext: why is it taking so long to appoint her?)?
The question visibly comes as something of a relief to the president, who is temporarily allowed to talk about something other than this week’s stillborn White House economic proposals. “The idea for this agency was Elizabeth Warren’s….It has only been a couple of months…..I will have an announcement soon about how we’re going to move forward…..I have had conversations with Elizabeth.”
Bloomberg asks “Are you concerned about a Senate confirmation?” and Mr Obama responds,”I am concerned about all Senate nominations these days. I have been waiting for six months to get people confirmed….We have judges pending, people waiting to help us on homeland security…Very hard hard when you have a determined minority in the Senate that insists on a 60-vote filibuster…They [Republicans] are just playing games.”
11:24am - CBS asks: Why did you wait so long to roll out this week’s new tax proposals and why are you treating the word “stimulus’ as a banned word in the White House? Good pointed couple of questions.
The president starts at the beginning – by going back to last year’s stimulus. “When you put all the things we’ve done together it has made a difference”. Not clear yet whether President Obama’s answer is directly relevant to the CBS question. “The proposals we have put forward [this week] are historically those that have garnered bipartisan support [yet Republicans are not biting]“.
CBS prompts him: “So this is a second stimulus.”
Obama: “Everything we have been trying to do is to stimulate growth and jobs in the economy. I have no problem with people saying: “The president is trying to stimulute growth and hiring”.
11:19am – Question from Reuters: Is there room for middle ground on extending the Bush tax cuts for all income groups for a year or two while the economy is weak? The president’s response: “On the high-income tax cuts, my position is: “Let’s get done on what we all agree on [extending the tax cuts for the middle class}” He then repeats the argument that it is a waste to give away an extra $700bn over the next decade to the wealthiest bracket of Americans.”
While a little long-winded, President Obama’s arguments and phrasing are all familiar – there doesn’t appear to be a new way of framing his economic programme. There is no Reagan-style “stay the course” quality to his wording so far.
11:15am - In response to the first question from AP in which he is asked whether the mid-term elections will be a referendum on unemployment: “Since I’m the president, it’s understandable that people will ask: What have you done?” Answer: He will use the next seven weeks to convince Americans that Republicans will take America back to the era of George W. Bush “And the perfect example is the debate we’re having on taxes right now….if you want the same kind of skewed policies that led us to the crisis the Republicans are ready to offer us that,” Mr Obama said.
11:10am – A businesslike President Obama opens the press conference – his first in three months – with a by-now familiar spiel highlighting the differences between the White House approach to the economy and the Republican Party’s plans, which would take us back to the Bush years he argues. Obama then reprises his new proposals on extending R&D, depreciation write-offs and $50bn in new infrastructure spending.
And he calls on Congress to pass next week a $30bn small business jobs bill, “which has been held up by a small minority”. “It is a bill that is paid for…it has been praised by the Chamber of Commerce, yet a minority of Republicans have been using legislative tactics to prevent the bill from getting to a vote”. Obama singles out Senator George Voinovich of Ohio, as the sole Republican willing to unblock this relatively modest bill. Finally, the president, as expected, announces Austan Goolsbee as the new head of the Council of Economic Advisors…”One of the finest economists in the country – someone who has a deep appreciation of how the economy affects everyday people”. And he concludes by extolling the “enduring values and resilient spirit of America” in the context of tomorrow’s ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
So far there is nothing strikingly new, either substantively or oratorically, in the president’s approach. A fairly pedestrian display.