Amid signs of growing US economic weakness, President Obama took to the White House briefing room Friday to call on Congress once again to pass jobs legislation and on European leaders to stabilize their finances and prevent a global downturn.
Mr. Obama expressed confidence that the US financial sector was prepared for a “range of contingencies” related to the European debt crisis, but added that the threat of renewed recession in Europe could hurt the fragile US recovery.
“If there's less demand for our products in places like Paris or Madrid, it could mean less businesses – or less business for manufacturers in places like Pittsburgh or Milwaukee,” Obama said in a hastily called press conference.
The president called Europe’s challenges “solvable,” by taking measures to strengthen the banking system and by carrying out longer-term structural reforms.
On the home front, Obama pointed toward the Republican-controlled Congress as another source of drag on the US economy. As he has done many times before, the president blamed Congress for failing to pass in full a jobs package he introduced last September, aimed at putting firefighters, teachers, construction workers, and others back to work.
“If Congress had passed it in full, we'd be on track to have a million more Americans working this year,” Obama said. “The unemployment rate would be lower. Our economy would be stronger.”
He credited Congress with passing some parts of the bill, such as a cut in the payroll tax, but blamed Congress for leaving “most of the jobs plan just sitting there.” He also spoke of the economic “headwinds” that he faces – a term he has deployed so many times since taking office in early 2009 that the Republican National Committee mocked him for it in a web video released Friday morning.
Obama’s press conference, announced with just an hour’s notice, seemed aimed at seizing the political narrative at the end of a tough week. Last Friday, the unemployment report for May showed weaker-than-expected jobs growth, and an uptick of the jobless rate to 8.2 percent. In the ensuing week, the stock market did a roller coaster act.
On Tuesday, the failure of Wisconsin Democrats – and their allies in the labor movement – to unseat Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a controversial recall effort dealt another blow to Obama and his party.
And in a stickier situation for the president, former President Clinton erupted with a series of “off-message” statements several times in the last week, contradicting key Obama campaign arguments on the economy, taxes, and presumed GOP nominee Mitt Romney's business record. Mr. Clinton apologized on Thursday, and is likely to remain a top surrogate for Obama, but after similar displays of rogue behavior by other top Democrats – note Newark Mayor Cory Booker and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell – Team Obama seemed a bit ragged by week’s end.
At the press conference, Obama was also asked about recent media leaks concerning his alleged supervision of a terrorist “kill list” and about cyberattacks on Iran’s suspected nuclear program. Republicans have accused the president’s allies of leaking the information to boost his national security credentials – now the strongest suit in his reelection bid – to strengthen his campaign.
Obama said that if any people who have leaked information can be rooted out, “they will suffer the consequences” for what is a criminal act.
“The notion that my White House would purposefully release classified national security information is offensive,” he said. “It's wrong, and you know, people, I think, need to have a better sense of how I approach this office and how the people around me here approach this office.”
On balance, Obama spent the bulk of his press conference focused on Europe, and what European leaders can do to prevent their financial crisis – and problems with the eurozone – from turning into a global economic downturn.
“In the short term, they've got to stabilize ... their financial system, and part of that is taking clear action as soon as possible to inject capital into weak banks,” Obama said. “Just as important, leaders can lay out a framework and a vision for a stronger eurozone, including deeper collaboration on budgets and banking policy."