At the second press conference of his two-month-old presidency, Barack Obama sent a clear signal: I'm an establishment progressive, not an angry populist.
Before taking questions from reporters, Obama read a statement—a sort of mini-speech—off a teleprompter and recounted all the economic measures he has put into play: the stimulus package, a mortgage crisis plan, various plans to unclog credit within the financial system (including the toxic assets buy-back program), and his proposed budget. Only after he explained how all this will help the economy recover did he note that was "as angry as anyone" about the bonuses paid to executives of AIG, the bailed-out insurance giant. Obama noted that the bonuses were another "symptom" of the culture of greed that allowed Wall Streeters to bring down the rest of the economy. Corporate executives, he warned, must realize that they cannot enrich "themselves on taxpayer's dime" and engage in "reckless speculation that puts us all at risk." But, he added, the "rest of us can't afford to demonize every investor and entrepreneur."
That seemed a well-crafted mix. But Obama certainly put more energy into explaining—or defending—his economic plans than in bashing the culprits of capitalism. Throughout the press conference, he concentrated on selling his overall economic message: that the country must invest in education, health care, and alternative energy, even as it is overwhelmed by the current mess and faces large deficits and an increasing amount of debt. When CNN's Ed Henry asked Obama why he hadn't displayed more anger about the AIG bonuses and done so sooner, Obama took the occasion to explain why he believes it is now necessary to spend money on health care, energy, and education to prevent further structural problems with the economy. Moments earlier, answering a question from CBS News' Chip Reid about the large projected increases in debt that could result from his proposed budget, the president had said that if the nation does not tackle its challenges on these three particular fronts, "we won't grow 2.6 percent, we won't grow 2.2 percent, we won't grow."
Though Obama has vowed to cut the deficit within a few years, he has refused to yield to the pleas of deficit hawks (including those newly hawkish congressional GOPers) who claim his spending plans are too exorbitant for a country in this much economic trouble. While supporting or concocting various bailouts for the corporate crowd—including that toxic assets plan that could end up a better deal for banks and hedge funds than taxpayers—Obama is also holding firm to the liberal tenet that the nation can invest itself out of its current economic dilemma. This is the left-of-center core of his economic policies, and he declared his commitment to it once more.
Even as he defended his administration's proposal to cut tax deductions for charitable donations made by the well-to-do, Obama showed little interest in playing any populist card. When Associated Press reporter Jennifer Loven asked him about his administration's plan to ask Congress for the authority to seize non-banking financial companies that might collapse and harm the economy, Obama dispassionately explained the need for such powers, pointing to AIG, without slamming the firm. And when Ed Henry pressed him on why it had taken days—yes, days—for Obama to share his exasperation with those AIG bonuses, Obama quickly shot back: "Well, it took a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak." This fellow clearly would rather wield a pointer than a pitchfork.
Obama seemed rather comfortable explicating all his economic positions. Unlike his first press conference, this time he took follow-up questions from reporters. And this time he did not stick to the MSM heavyweights. He gave all the TV guys (cable and broadcast) their turns, but passed over The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and Reuters, instead bestowing questioning privileges on Politico, Univsion, and Agence France Presse.