Obama defends his handling of the economy, but admits recovery is ‘painfully slow’

Holly Bailey
The Upshot

With declining poll numbers and Democrats on the verge of losing control of Congress in November, President Obama went before reporters at the White House on Friday to defend his handling of the economy. And in a nod in the direction of the hard-fought midterm battles taking shape across the country, he repeatedly stressed that the economy's problems began under the GOP watch well before he took office.

Still, the president acknowledged his administration's efforts haven't provided the boost he had hoped for, calling economic progress "painfully slow."

"We aren't there yet," Obama said repeatedly during the roughly 80-minute news conference. "It's understandable that people are asking, 'What have you done?' [But] the policies we have put into place have moved us in the right direction."

Echoing recent speeches, Obama tried to instead frame the upcoming election as a choice between Democrats' efforts to "move forward" and Republican obstructionism. He contended that GOP candidates are pushing "the exact policies" that led the nation into economic strife. If the election is a "referendum" on progress, Obama acknowledged, his party could face stiff losses in November. "If the election is about the policies that are going to move us forward versus the policies that are going to get us back in a mess, then Democrats will do very well," he said.

Obama stopped shy of reiterating his frequent description of the GOP as the "party of no" -- but he did accuse the GOP of playing politics instead of embracing areas of potential policy agreement with the White House and Democrats.

Asked specifically whether he might try to find middle ground with the GOP on the issue of extending the so-called Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the president twice declined to answer. In general terms, however, Obama indicated he was open to compromise on tax cuts. "My position is: Let's get done what we can agree on," Obama said.

But he still assailed the GOP for advocating an extension of tax cuts for the richest Americans, questioning why a party "so concerned about the growing deficit" would try to "help people who don't need help."

On the eve of the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Obama addressed recent unease among some Americans toward Islam. The president said he believes the "fear" has been driven by the country being "generally anxious and going through a tough time" but encouraged Americans to "make sure we don't start turning on each other."

"One of the things I most admired about President Bush [after 9/11] was him being crystal-clear that we are not at war with Islam. We are at war with terrorists," Obama said.

In a nod to a recent Pew poll that found 1 in five Americans believe he is Muslim, Obama used the moment to remind people that he is a Christian. "As someone who relies heavily on my Christian faith in my job, I understand the passions that religious faith can cause," the president said. "But I'm also respectful that people of different faiths can practice their religions even if they don't subscribe to the exact same notions that I do and that they are good people and they are neighbors and friends and they are fighting alongside us in our battles. I want to make sure this country retains that sense of purpose."

Obama defended his administration's decision to have Defense Secretary Robert Gates phone Florida Pastor Terry Jones on Thursday to encourage him not to move forward with the burning of Qurans. The president said he was not worried it would "elevate" a fringe pastor. For him, he said, it was a larger national security issue that could potentially put men and women serving in Afghanistan and other places around the world at risk.  Plus, Obama said, "the idea that someone would burn the sacred texts of someone's religion is not what this country stands for."

Asked about Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Obama admitted that his administration still has no clear intelligence on where he is, but insisted that bin Laden's capture remains a "high priority" for the White House. He also acknowledged that he has failed to keep his campaign promise of closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center within his first year of office, calling the effort more difficult politically than he expected.

(Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)