BY PETER BAKER
President Obama held his first full-scale White House news conference in three months and the first of the fall campaign season. He announced his promotion of the White House economist, Austan D. Goolsbee, to succeed Christina Romer as chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, as well as address other issues of the day, including the Middle East peace talks and the debate over extending the Bush tax cuts.
12:17 P.M. Last Question: Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan
After Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, calls out “last question,” Mr. Obama calls on Wendell Goler of Fox News, who asks about the Islamic center in New York. “We’re not at war with Islam,” the president replies. “We’re at war with terrorist organizations.”
In the end, Mr. Obama takes questions for more than 75 minutes, an unusually long marathon session for any president. It’s almost as if to say to cranky reporters who often complain about how few news conferences he holds, Fine, you want a news conference? Bring it on.
They did, he did and now it’s done. Thanks for joining us today.
12:11 P.M. Terror Policy
The president has gone into overtime here, extending his session beyond an hour, perhaps his longest such session with reporters so far. He is now defending his terrorism policies and failure to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in response to questions from Ann Compton of ABC News Radio and Ed Henry of CNN.
He says he thinks “day and night” about how to protect Americans from terrorists and that it “would be extremely important” to capture or kill Al Qaeda’s leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. “It doesn’t solve all our problems, but it remains a high priority for this administration,” he says. But he goes on to say that terrorism may be a longstanding problem that should not be taken out of proportion. “We are going to have this problem out there for a long time to come, but it doesn’t have to distort us or dominate our foreign policy,” he says.
11:59 A.M. Ethics in Afghanistan and Israeli Settlements
Our colleague, Helene Cooper, of course asks the best questions of the day: How can the Obama administration lecture the Afghan government on corruption when the Central Intelligence Agency itself has Afghan officials and leaders on the payroll? And should Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel extend the moratorium on settlement construction due to expire this month as a gesture of good faith in the Middle East peace talks?
The president responds to the first by saying that he too is concerned that “some of our folks on the ground have made compromises” in dealing with corrupt officials and that “we’re reviewing all that constantly” to make sure that the United States is not “giving a wink and a nod to corruption.”
“We’ve got to make sure we’re not sending a mixed message here,” he says. “One of the things I’ve said to my national security team here is let’s be consistent.” He adds: “Our actions have to match up across the board.”
On Israel, he says he has urged Mr. Netanyahu to extend the moratorium: “What I’ve said to Prime Minister Netanyahu is that given that so far the talks are moving forward in a constructive way it makes sense to extend that moratorium – so long as the talks are moving forward in a constructive way.”
He acknowledges that “the politics for Prime Minister Netanyahu are very difficult” and so he has told Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, that he has to make gestures as well, summarizing his message as follows: “You’ve got to show the Israeli public that you are serious and constructive in these talks so that the politics for Prime Minister Netanyahu, if he were to extend the settlement moratorium, would be a little easier.”
11:55 A.M. Responding to the Left
Mr. Obama takes on critics from his own political base who do not think he is focused enough on fighting poverty, arguing, as he has repeatedly, that “broad-based job growth and broad-based economic growth” will help everyone. Responding to April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks, he notes his own credentials as a community organizer in poor areas of Chicago.
“I am constantly thinking about how do we create ladders for communities and individuals to climb into the middle class,” he says. But “if we can grow the economy faster and create more jobs, then everybody is swept up into that virtuous cycle.”
11:50 A.M. Needle the Press
The president takes a little jab at the media for turning a little-known pastor with a congregation of a few dozen people in Florida into an international figure because of his threat to burn the Koran.
When Jake Tapper of ABC News asks whether the administration elevated a marginal figure by having the secretary of defense call him to ask him to refrain from the planned spectacle, Mr. Obama replies: “I hardly think we’re the ones who elevated this story. But it is something that in the age of the Internet can cause us profound damage around the world, and so we have to take it seriously.”
He also needles Mr. Tapper a bit during an exchange about health care costs. “I haven’t read the whole study,” the president says. “Maybe you have.”
11:47 A.M. Mideast Peace
Mr. Obama departs from the usual roster of questioners to call on Natasha Mozgovaya of Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, to get a chance to offer his thoughts on the Middle East peace talks. He uses the occasion to play down expectations amid deep skepticism about whether the talks can lead to a genuine agreement.
“We can facilitate, we can encourage, we can tell them we will stand behind them in their efforts,” he says. “But ultimately the parties have to make these decision for themselves. I remain hopeful, but this is going to be tough. I don’t want anyone out there thinking it’s going to be easy.” But he says it is worth doing not just for the sake of the region, but for the United States, weighing in on an argument that has flavored foreign policy discussions lately about whether Middle East peace really matters to American security. “If these talks break down, we’re going to keep on trying,” he says. “We’re not just doing this to feel good. We’re doing it because it will help to secure America as well.”
11:41 A.M. New Tax Argument
Our colleague, Jackie Calmes, sends this thought along:
The president has raised a new argument — for him — in the debate over the Bush-era tax cuts: Extending the tax cuts for taxable income up to $250,000 for couples and $200,000 for individuals would benefit millionaires and billionaires as well, though only on their income up to those levels. In short, as he said, every American would benefit from extending the rates as he proposes but the super-rich would only benefit to the extent that the merely affluent would.
This is an argument that aides had said he would make in his speech this week in Ohio; for whatever reason he did not. The Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee have earlier argued this point.
11:37 A.M. Religion After 9/11
Addressing the recent furor over Islam in America on the eve of the Sept. 11 anniversary, Mr. Obama makes sure to slip into his answer that he is a Christian, a not-all-that-subtle response to a recent Pew Research Center poll showing that most Americans do not think he is, and nearly one in five think he is a Muslim.
“As someone who relies heavily on my Christian faith in my job, I understand the passions that religious faith can raise,” he tells Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post. “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.”
11:35 A.M. Changing Washington
Mr. Obama admits he may not have done as much as he could have to change the nature of Washington, but largely lays the polarization of the capital at the feet of the Republicans. “If you’re asking why haven’t I been able to create a greater spirit of cooperation in Washington, I think that’s fair,” he tells Chuck Todd of NBC News. “I’m as frustrated as anybody by it. I think part of it has to do with the fact that when we came into office, we came in under very tough economic circumstances and I think some of the Republican leaders made a decision, we’re going to sit on the sidelines and let the Democrats try to solve it. So we got a lot of resistance very early.”
The back and forth underscores the challenge for Mr. Obama in the fall campaign. He says his policies have worked because “the economy would be in much worse shape” without them. But the could-be-worse argument is a hard case to make to the nearly 10 percent of American workers who are currently unemployed.
11:30 A.M. Early G.O.P. Response
Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the top House Republican and putative speaker-to-be if his party wins in November, did not bother waiting for the president to finish to rebut his news conference. “Half-hearted proposals and full-throated political attacks won’t end the uncertainty that is keeping small businesses from creating jobs,” he says in a statement issued by e-mail. “Republicans have proposed a two-part plan to boost the economy now by freezing all tax rates for two years and cutting government spending to where it was before all the bailouts, government takeovers, and ‘stimulus’ spending sprees.”
Mr. Boehner goes on to criticize the selection of Mr. Goolsbee: “Unfortunately, the appointment of Austan Goolsbee to be the president’s chief economist represents a commitment to more of the same failed ‘stimulus’ policies. This president urgently needs people around him who’ve created jobs in the private sector and understand the challenges small businesses face, people who aren’t wed to the worn-out notion that our nation can simply spend its way back to prosperity.”
11:27 A.M. Consumer Watchdog
In response to Hans Nichols of Bloomberg, Mr. Obama confirms that he has interviewed Elizabeth Warren, the scourge of Wall Street and the hero of the political left, to possibly head the new consumer protection agency created by the new financial regulation law, and seems to hint that he may appoint her but stops short of an announcement.
“She’s a dear friend of mine,” he says. “She’s somebody I’ve known since I was in law school. I have been in conversations with her. She is a tremendous advocate for this idea.” He adds: “I’ll have an announcement soon.”
11:19 A.M. ‘Second Stimulus?’
Mr. Obama largely dodges a direct answer to Caren Bohan of Reuters, who asks if he is willing to compromise by extending the tax cuts temporarily. Likewise, he does not really answer at first when Chip Reid of CBS News asks whether the new plan to spend $50 billion on infrastructure should be called stimulus.
Mr. Reid follows up: “So this is a second stimulus?”
Mr. Obama laughs, as his dodge is pointed out, but then turns the question around and embraces the term: “There is no doubt that everything we’ve been trying to do, everything we’ve been trying to do, is designed to stimulate growth and additional jobs in the economy. That’s our entire agenda. So I have no problem with people saying the president is trying to stimulate growth and hiring. Isn’t that what I should be doing?’
11:13 A.M. Bush Tax Cut Debate
Mr. Obama has moved into his tax argument, summoning the populist rhetoric of recent days about Republicans favoring the rich. Referring to the debate over extending the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, he says: “I’m prepared to work on a bill and sign a bill this month to ensure that middle class families get tax relief.” But he says Republicans are “holding middle-class tax relief hostage” in order to “give tax relief to millionaires and billionaires.”
11:12 A.M. Midterms as Economic Referendum
Posing the first question, Darlene Superville of the Associated Press asks him about his comment in an interview earlier this week that the Democrats will not do very well in the fall midterm elections if they are a referendum on how the economy is doing. Mr. Obama uses it to pivot and continue his attack on Republican economic policies that he said led to the worst financial crisis of decades. “For 19 months, what we have done is steadily work to avoid a depression, to take an economy that was contracting rapidly and make it grow again,” he says.
11:10 A.M. Goolsbee’s Promotion
Mr. Obama announces what has already been widely reported, that he is elevating Mr. Goolsbee to take over the Council of Economic Advisers. “Austan’s been one of my good friends and close economic advisers for years,” he says. Mr. Goolsbee is in the East Room looking on, though he does not join the president on the stage.
11:09 A.M. Small Business Plan
Mr. Obama calls on Congress to back his plan to help small businesses invest and create jobs when lawmakers return to town next week, noting that it would not add to the deficit and has been praised by the United States Chamber of Commerce. He praises Senator George Voinovich, the Ohio Republican, for breaking with his party on the issue.
11:08 A.M. Blaming the G.O.P.
President Obama is opening his news conference with a reprisal of his argument in Parma, Ohio, this week that the Republicans are responsible for the bad economy, not him, and that his plans have been intended to clean up their mess. It’s an argument that is intended in part to energize his dejected liberal base but so far has shown little traction in the polls.
With his party’s control of Congress on the line, expect to hear a lot of questions about his debate with Republicans over taxes, spending, the size of government and the nature of his presidency. There may also be questions on the proposed Islamic center near the ground zero site in New York, the apparently scotched plan by a Florida pastor to burn the Koran on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and the president’s efforts to negotiate peace in the Middle East. Also look for questions about Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, who may be leaving to run for mayor of Chicago. And he may be asked about recent federal court rulings in California in favor of same-sex marriage and against the military’s ban on gays and lesbians serving openly.
This is the president’s eighth solo White House news conference since taking office. It is not his favorite format. By this point in their presidencies, George W. Bush had held six solo White House news conferences, Bill Clinton had held 18 and George H.W. Bush had held 32, according to data compiled by Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University.
Eid Mubarak, ONTD!