/ 19 March 2009

Obama cranks up drive to save US economy

With a dose of populism, a nod to Hollywood and a prime time press conference, Barack Obama is deploying every weapon in the presidential armoury to bolster his economic rescue strategy.

After enduring a grilling over the multimillion-dollar bonus binge by bailed-out US insurance giant AIG, the president climbed aboard Air Force One on Wednesday and left Washington’s febrile atmosphere behind and headed to the open west.

”We love you,” shouted a supporter at a steamy indoor rally in California, recalling the heady campaign-trail days when Obama preached hope and change, before he won power and the poison chalice of the devastated US economy.

The president’s beating over AIG and a wave of criticism over his yet-to-be rolled-out banking rescue, as well as the need to sell his mammoth $3,55-trillion reform budget, means a top up of political capital is required.

So Obama put himself figuratively on the side of the people against Wall Street and Washington, in California, where unemployment has shot up to 10%, and his economic stimulus plan is under pressure to save the day.

On an overnight trip, the president had two town hall meetings planned, as well as a spot awaiting on Thursday on the couch of late night Tonight Show host Jay Leno, which is normally the haunt of Hollywood royalty.

Next Tuesday, the president will crank his campaign up another notch with a prime time televised press conference, likely to be dominated by his plans to simultaneously punish Wall Street, but save the US finance industry.

Pressure on
First stop on Wednesday was Orange County, California, which lost a staggering 33 000 jobs between December and January, and saw more than 750 mortgage foreclosures in February alone.

California is normally welcoming ground for a Democratic president — and voted overwhelmingly for Obama in November — but is suffering badly from the crisis, and pressure is building on the White House for relief.

Obama, in full, folksy campaign mode, theatrically took off his jacket and was soon riffing one-liners familiar from his election campaign.

But he also had to field heart-rending questions from people who had lost their jobs and had no prospect of finding a new one soon.

And he attempted once more to quell the fire over AIG, as Republican critics claim he and beleaguered Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner should have done more to stop the firm paying bonuses after being saved by taxpayers.

”I know Washington’s all in a tizzy and everybody’s pointing fingers at each other and saying it’s all their fault, the Democrats’ fault, the Republicans’ fault,” Obama said.

”Listen, I’ll take responsibility. I’m the president,” Obama said, sparking cheers and applause.

”We didn’t draft these contracts. We’ve got a lot on our plate — but it is appropriate when you’re in charge to make sure that stuff doesn’t happen like this.

”So we’re going to do everything we can to fix it,” he said, pivoting to one of his favourite points that episodes like the AIG affair were symptoms of the culture of greed and excess on Wall Street that caused the economic meltdown.

Obama also played some politics of his own.

He said he would rather be president and take on tough things for one term, than coast through eight years in power, perhaps calculating his words would make his critics look like rabid Washington partisans.

Voters could judge whether he deserved another four years in the White House after 2012 by living up to his vow to push through deep-seated reforms on issues like energy, education and healthcare, he said.

”If I don’t deliver on those things four years from now, then I think you will be answering that question of whether I run for re-election or not.”

The irony of Obama’s comments, in the middle of a full-bore campaign-style swing in front of a partisan crowd, appeared to be lost on his audience.

But Obama’s trip and his programme over the next few days underscore that he is going to need all the political capital he can amass, as he is the only figure in his administration with the real clout to sell his economic plans.

Geithner is under severe pressure and there is no one else with the trust of voters or the magnetism to drive political plans through — with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, who won 18 million votes in her primary duel with Obama, but now has her hands full as secretary of state. — AFP