President Obama's second press conference in as many months in office was marked by intense seriousness, a touch of political defiance, and an overwhelming focus on the ailments of the nation's economy.
The president, speaking amidst a surge of populist outrage and concern over the missteps of the financial community, sought to strike the most difficult of balances: commiseration and level-headedness. Speaking, particularly, to the controversial issuance of bonuses by the insurance giant AIG, he said that he shared the anger of the American public. But he followed by cautioning that sometimes such anger can be impede longer-term goals.
"Bankers and executives on Wall Street need to realize that enriching themselves on the taxpayers' dime is inexcusable, that the days of out-sized rewards and reckless speculation that puts us all at risk have to be over," he said. "At the same time, the rest of us can't afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit. That drive is what has always fueled our prosperity, and it is what will ultimately get these banks lending and our economy moving once more."
And so it went throughout the hour-long affair. Obama was asked thirteen questions in total and an additional eight as follow-ups. All but two focused squarely on domestic issues. And even when the topic ventured into the realm of international relations, the president brought the discussion right back to the home front. In what served as a crescendo to the whole event, he addressed a question on the status of Israeli-Palestinian relations by, in essence, asking the public for a bit of patience on this and other pertinent issues.
"I'm a big believer in persistence," said Obama. "I think that, when it comes to domestic affairs, if we keep on working at it, if we acknowledge that we make mistakes sometimes, and that we don't always have the right answer, and we're inheriting very knotty problems, that we can pass health care, we can find better solutions to our energy challenges, we can teach our children more effectively, we can deal with a very real budget crisis... We haven't immediately eliminated the influence of lobbyist in Washington; we have not immediately eliminated wasteful pork projects; and we are not going to immediately get Middle East peace. We have been in office now for a little more than 60 days. What I am confident about is that we are moving in the right direction."
Patience with the economy was, indeed, the theme of the night. No matter the question, the answer seemed to find its way to that topic. Asked about what he and the stimulus package were doing to stem homelessness, Obama said: "The most important thing that I can do on their behalf is to make sure that their parents have good jobs and that is why the recovery package set as a first priority how we can save or create 3.5 million jobs."
Asked later about how the issue of race was affecting - if at all - his first 64 days in the Oval Office, he replied: "I think that the last 64 days have been dominated by me trying to figure out how we are going to fix the economy. And that affects black, brown, and white.
Asked if he worried about his daughters inheriting a less stable U.S. economy, he declared, emphatically, "of course I do." And when quizzed about the prospects of even greater debt once he leaves office, the president replied that if the country didn't make the long-term investments that his budget provided, "we won't grow 2.6 percent. We won't grow 2.2 percent, we won't grow."
It wasn't all dire proclamations. The president predicted that, with time, the steps he had taken would stabilize the financial and housing markets and spur growth among small businesses. But even then, he was battling a dual dynamic: the broad desire to see quick solutions and the notion that fundamental change can only come over time. Obama, it seemed, understood that the time he had with this much political capital would be eclipsed by the lengthier crises he had inherited.
"What I am confident about," he said, "is that we're moving in the right direction and that the decisions we're making are based on, how are we going to get this economy moving? How are we going to put Americans back to work? How are we going to make sure that our people are safe? And how are we going to create not just prosperity here, but work with other countries for global peace and prosperity? And we are going to stay with it as long as I'm in this office, and I think that -- you look back four years from now, I think, hopefully, people will judge that body of work and say, 'This is a big ocean liner. It's not a speedboat. It doesn't turn around immediately. But we're in a better -- better place because of the decisions that we made.'"