100 days: Obama makes broad assurances to country

McClatchy NewspapersApril 29, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama marked his first 100 days in office Wednesday with a broad assurance that the country is on the road to recovery and that there is no cause for panic on threats ranging from the swine flu to nuclear weapons in Pakistan.

In an evening news conference, Obama defended his formal ban of extreme techniques the Bush administration used to question terrorism suspects, and his decision to declassify memos outlining the tactics. He said there have been "no circumstances" so far "that would make me second-guess the decision that I've made."

The president also said he has no plans to close the U.S.-Mexico border to deal with the growing threat of a swine flu pandemic because it would be like "closing the barn door after the horses are out."

He said there's no cause for panic, but that Americans should wash their hands, cover their mouths when they cough, and stay away from work and public places if they are sick.

And while he said he was "gravely concerned" about Pakistan's stability, he assured Americans, "I'm confident that we can make sure that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is secure."

In the wide-ranging news conference from the East Room of the White House, the president offered a glimpse of his own emotions, highlighted some of his accomplishments so far and characterized his new administration as "off to a good start."

He noted that he and the Democratic Congress in combination had delivered a new $3.4 trillion budget outline; a $787 billion economic stimulus package that he credited with preserving 150,000 jobs to date; a tax cut for 95 percent of working families; and an expansion of children's health insurance coverage.

At the same time, Obama warned of more lost homes and jobs to come because the recession continues, and acknowledged that he has yet to sufficiently rein in long-term federal budget deficits.

He also warned of challenges ahead from the economy to terrorist threats to swine flu.

And he faced continuing questions about issues he hopes to put behind him, on the last administration's CIA interrogations in its "war on terror"; how he will differ from President George W. Bush in terms of how much executive power and secrecy he assumes; and whether the U.S. really can contain the unraveling of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Obama confirmed he has read still-classified documents touted by former Vice President Dick Cheney and others that make the case life-saving information was gleaned from interrogations using now banned techniques, such as waterboarding, which simulates drowning.

However, Obama said that rationale ignored the core issue of "we could have gotten this information in other ways" consistent with U.S. values. Asked whether he thought Bush had sanctioned torture, Obama said he thinks that waterboarding is torture.

Obama also indicated he'd support a congressional effort to scale back a president's ability to use the state secrets doctrine.

He said his own administration has invoked the doctrine in court so far because it hasn't had time to recommend changes, but that it is "over-broad" and "should be modified."

In a relatively confessional stretch during the hour-long news conference, Obama said in these opening months he has been surprised "by the number of critical issues that appear to be coming to a head all at the same time" and struck by how much had changed since he began a campaign in 2007 when the Iraq war was the central issue.

He acknowledged that he hadn't anticipated the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and that he was "sobered" by how slowly change or efforts at bipartisanship moved in Washington. He also said he had been "so profoundly impressed and grateful" toward the soldiers he has met since taking office.

On the U.S. economy, Obama said he's increasingly optimistic that Chrysler can survive, and he emphasized that he wants federal aid to business to be as short-term as possible. "I don't want to run auto companies, I don't want to run banks," he said.

His third prime-time news conference since becoming president capped another busy day.

On Capitol Hill, Congress voted for final passage of a $3.4 trillion budget plan that provides a framework for some of Obama's key policy initiatives, including a massive government expansion of health care and efforts to curb global warming.

Earlier Wednesday, first lady Michelle Obama joined congressional spouses at a food bank, filling bags with food for needy children.

The president began the morning with a joint appearance at the White House with Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched parties on Tuesday. That could give Democrats a filibuster-proof margin on some votes in Congress, assuming that Al Franken is sworn in to fill Minnesota's vacant Senate seat. A lower state court declared him victor in the contested November election, and the state Supreme Court will hear arguments on June 1.

Obama paused during his appearance with Specter to offer "my thoughts and prayers and deepest condolences" to the family of a Mexican toddler who died at a Texas hospital, the first fatal case of swine flu confirmed in the U.S.

As health officials across the country worked to get a handle on the pandemic threat, Obama said that schools with confirmed or suspected cases of swine flu should consider closing temporarily, and he urged parents to make contingency plans.

Then Obama flew to Missouri, the one battleground state he lost in November's election.

At a town hall meeting in Arnold, Mo., Obama told the gathering that "I'm not a miracle worker. We've got a lot of tough choices and hard decisions and hard work ahead of us."

At the same time he said that "we can see the light on the horizon" and that "on my 100th day in office, I've come to report to you, the American people that we have begun to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, and we've begun the work of remaking America."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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