FAIRFAX, Va. — President-elect Barack Obama launched his campaign to sell the most ambitious government spending plan in American history Thursday, urging Congress to act swiftly on his upcoming proposal to jump-start the economy or risk dooming the country to a diminished future.
"We should have an open and honest discussion about this recovery plan in the days ahead," Obama said in a half-hour speech before an invitation-only audience at George Mason University in suburban Washington.
"But I urge Congress to move as quickly as possible on behalf of the American people. For every day we wait or point fingers or drag our feet, more Americans will lose their jobs. More families will lose their savings. More dreams will be deferred and denied. And our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse."
His stark message marked an extraordinary move, coming from a man who hasn't yet taken office and has yet to offer any details of his plan. However, he also noted that these are extraordinary times, a rare turning point.
"I don't believe it's too late to change course, but it will be if we don't take dramatic action as soon as possible," he said.
"If nothing is done, this recession could linger for years. The unemployment rate could reach double digits," Obama continued. "Our economy could fall $1 trillion short of its full capacity, which translates into more than $12,000 in lost income for a family of four. We could lose a generation of potential and promise, as more young Americans are forced to forgo dreams of college or the chance to train for the jobs of the future. And our nation could lose the competitive edge that has served as a foundation for our strength and standing in the world."
Obama acknowledged that his effort has grown more difficult with the forecast that this year's federal budget deficit will reach a record $1.2 trillion.
"I understand that some might be skeptical of this plan. Our government has already spent a good deal of money, but we haven't yet seen that translate into more jobs or higher incomes or renewed confidence in our economy," he said.
"There is no doubt that the cost of this plan will be considerable. It will certainly add to the budget deficit in the short term. But equally certain are the consequences of doing too little or nothing at all, for that will lead to an even greater deficit of jobs, incomes and confidence in our economy."
As negotiations with Congress accelerated behind closed doors, Obama urged around-the-clock work to get a proposal ready and through Congress soon after he takes office Jan. 20.
"I'm asking Congress to work with me and my team day and night, on weekends if necessary, to get the plan passed in the next few weeks," he said.
Echoing John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural call to "ask not what your country can do for you," Obama also appealed to Americans to back a broad and expensive plan, even if it includes some spending or tax cut proposals they might find objectionable.
"I'm calling on all Americans, Democrats and Republicans, to put good ideas ahead of the old ideological battles, a sense of common purpose above the same narrow partisanship, and insist that the first question each of us asks isn't, 'What's good for me?' but, 'What's good for the country my children will inherit?' "
Key members of Congress warned that the next few weeks could be rocky as various factions wrestle over the details, but they expressed unusual confidence that they could write and pass the huge plan in time for Obama to sign it into law by Presidents Day on Feb. 16.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she'd keep the House of Representatives in session through a scheduled 10-day Presidents Day recess if necessary to pass the plan.
She also predicted that even those members who are eager to return home to see constituents would bow to the need for action. "His economic recovery package, sight unseen, is supported by 79 percent of the American people," she said.
Republicans lauded Obama for reaching out to them, but withheld support until they see the details.
Looking to add pressure from outside the capital, Obama invited a group of friendly governors and mayors to hear his speech. Most lauded his proposals, however sketchy, to pour federal money into their cities and states to improve roads, schools, Internet access and energy conservation.
"It's exactly what this country needs to stop the downward spiral," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat.
They also said they all had plenty of proposed projects ready to go to build or improve roads or schools. "Within 180 days, dirt will fly," Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said.
The governors said they weren't concerned that Obama hasn't proposed anything specific. "There have been extensive consultations," said Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat and Obama supporter.
Obama did offer a few new details of what he'd propose, including:
- Energy efficiency improvements in 2 million private homes and 75 percent of all government buildings, a move he said would create jobs now and save billions of dollars later in energy costs.
- Computerizing all medical records within five years, a move that proponents hope will cut health-care costs later.
- Improving labs and classrooms in schools.
- Boosting science and technology research to produce medical breakthroughs and new industries.
- Expanding broadband access, particularly in small towns and rural America, so that small businesses can better compete with wired rivals overseas.
He also repeated his campaign pledge of $1,000 tax cuts that he said would go to 95 percent of "working families." During his campaign, he promised those tax reductions to individuals who make less than $200,000 a year and couples who make less than $250,000.
He didn't, however, mention a proposed tax credit for businesses that create or save jobs, an idea that's starting to draw criticism from some economists and business groups as unworkable and possibly ineffective.
"I have a hard time seeing what effect that will have," said Bruce Josten, the vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
At a Senate Finance Committee meeting Thursday, even some Democrats raised concerns about Obama's proposed tax cuts. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., called a break for retraining workers "misdirected," while others said they wondered how much economic stimulus the cuts could provide.
But committee member Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said that while "there was a lot of back and forth," he didn't see the concerns as an obstacle to passing a major stimulus package. "There was a general view we have to do something," he said.
Despite the broad desire for some sort of stimulus, Obama faces hurdles in the Senate, where Republicans have made it clear that they want generous tax reductions and limits on spending. Since they have the 41 votes that are needed to stop a bill, they'll have a prominent role in shaping the legislation.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that he wanted at least two elements to be key parts of the plan: a reduction of the 25 percent tax rate now paid by middle-class taxpayers to 15 percent, and aid to states as loans rather than grants.
"We know at least two states that don't need the money," he said, noting that the Republican governors of South Carolina and Texas say they don't need it.
He added that Congress isn't capable of monitoring state-by-state spending, so "the way to make sure it's spent judiciously is to make it a loan."
He and House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, also urged anew that there be full hearings on the stimulus proposal.
But they did agree with Obama that, as Boehner said, "Our economy is facing a crisis and American families and small businesses are under lots of stress and anxiety and we have to act." They also praised Obama for dealing with them: "I think we are being listened to," McConnell said.
However, he wouldn't say what it would take for him to support a package.
"Our response to the package will depend on what it looks like," he said.
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