Obama urges quick passage of stimulus plan

U.S. President Barack Obama urged Congress on Monday evening to quickly pass his economic stimulus plan of more than $800 billion US, saying "the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back to life."
President Barack Obama answers a question Monday during his first prime-time televised news conference in the East Room of the White House. ((Evan Vucci/Associated Press))
U.S. President Barack Obama urged Congress on Monday evening to quickly pass his economic stimulus plan of more than $800 billion US, saying  "the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back to life."

Only government "can break the vicious cycle where lost jobs lead to people spending less money, which leads to even more layoffs," Obama said during his first televised news conference in the White House since he took office Jan. 20.

"And breaking that cycle is exactly what the plan that's moving through Congress is designed to do."

Obama, who discussed the state of the U.S. economy and why he believes the country needs to implement this recovery plan as soon as possible, spoke to reporters just hours after the Senate cleared a procedural hurdle late Monday afternoon, voting 61-36 to end debate on the $838-billion version of the plan.

That paves the way for a vote on final passage of the bill Tuesday.

The House of Representatives has already passed its version of the bill. The two chambers will have to negotiate on a single piece of legislation that will eventually be sent to Obama, who hopes to sign it into law next Monday.

Obama defends stimulus plan

President Barack Obama greets an audience member as he arrives for a town hall meeting at Concord Community High School in Elkhart, Ind., on Monday. ((Charles Dharapak/Associated Press))
As he did in Indiana earlier Monday, the president warned again Monday evening that a failure to act quickly "could turn a crisis into a catastrophe."

During the news conference, Obama defended his program against Republican criticism that the stimulus package is loaded with pork-barrel spending and will not create jobs.

Ninety per cent of the jobs created by the plan would be in the private sector, rebuilding crumbling roads, bridges and other aging infrastructure, Obama said.

"The plan is not perfect," he said. "No plan is.

"I can't tell you for sure that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hope, but I can tell you with complete confidence that a failure to act will only deepen this crisis, as well as the pain felt by millions of Americans."

Again and again, Obama stressed the U.S. economy is in dire straits.

"This is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill recession," he said, adding that the U.S. aims to avoid the kind of economic pain that Japan endured in the 1990s — the "lost decade" when that country showed no economic growth.

"My bottom line is to make sure that we are saving or creating four million jobs," he said, and that homeowners facing foreclosure receive some relief.

While Obama's focus was the economy, he also faced questions from reporters on foreign policy, including Iran and Pakistan.

When asked how he'd deal with Iran — a country the U.S. accuses of supporting terrorism — Obama said his administration was reviewing its policy and hopes to engage that country in the near future.

"My expectation is in the coming months we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can be sitting across the table, face to face," Obama said.

He also said "there's no doubt" there are regions along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan where terrorists are operating.

"We cannot allow al-Qaeda to operate," he said. "We cannot have those safe havens in that region, and we're going to have to work both smartly and effectively, but with consistency, in order to make sure those safe havens don't exist."

Obama takes pitch to Indiana

Earlier Monday, Obama spoke at a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind., a region that has seen its unemployment rate climb to 15 per cent, due in part to falling demand for recreational vehicles produced in the area.

He said that similar situations were playing out across the country.

"We can't afford to wait. We can't wait to see and hope for the best," Obama said. "We can't posture and bicker and resort to the same failed ideas that got us in into this mess in the first place."

Obama's plea came just days after the U.S. government reported that employers shed 598,000 jobs from their payrolls in January. Roughly 3.6 million U.S. jobs have disappeared in the economic downturn, half of them disappearing in the last three months, Obama said.

Obama will also take his message to Fort Myers, Fla., on Tuesday and to Peoria, Ill., on Thursday.

Republican-friendly Fort Myers, like Elkhart, has seen its unemployment rate climb to 10 per cent, from six per cent last year. Its housing market is among the worst in the United States.

With files from the Associated Press, the Canadian Press