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Obama makes case for stimulus

WASHINGTON — No drama with Obama.

No joking with Obama.

In his first prime-time news conference, Americans saw a determined, deadly serious President Barack Obama make his case for a historically huge economic recovery plan — pledging to push it through Congress in record time, even if he and fellow Democrats must steamroll Republicans to do it.

No more blind bipartisanship with Obama, either.

He'll watch the Super Bowl with Republicans. He'll visit them on Capitol Hill. He'll even put three Republicans in his Cabinet. "What I won't do," Obama told reporters assembled in the East Room, "is return to the failed theories of the last eight years that got us into this fix in the first place."

It was a thin line in the sand — and a veiled slap at Republicans — that won't be lost on Obama's liberal supporters.

Many are growing restless with a Democratic-controlled Congress that is slashing tens of billions of dollars to schools, states and other valued constituencies from the Obama-backed stimulus bill.

But Obama wasn't speaking to liberals alone. For many Americans — those who don't watch cable news or troll political blogs — this was their first look at the 44th president at work.

They saw a grim-faced leader, rarely smiling or laughing. They heard his deep, steady voice often pausing in mid-sentence to underscore dire economic numbers — the 1,000 (pause) men queued up for only 35 (pause) firefighter jobs in Miami; the 598,000 (pause) jobs lost last month; the 4 million (pause) jobs he promises to save or create.

He said the recession has left the nation so weak that only the federal government can "jolt our economy back to life." And he declared that failure to act swiftly and boldly "could turn a crisis into a catastrophe."

With more than 11 million Americans now out of work, Obama defended his program against Republican criticism that it is loaded with pork-barrel spending and will not create jobs.

"The plan is not perfect," the president said. "No plan is. I can't tell you for sure that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hope, but I can tell you with complete confidence that a failure to act will only deepen this crisis as well as the pain felt by millions of Americans."

This was not the time or place for soaring oratory, so Obama brought determined humility and resolve.

"Look," he said, "I would love not to have to spend money right now. I'd love this notion that somehow I came in here just ginned up to spend $800 billion. That wasn't ... how I envisioned my presidency beginning. But we have to adapt to existing circumstances."

In the hour-long news conference, Obama sounded more like a professor than a politician. The closest he came to making news was not on the economy, but on Iran. Obama said his administration "will be looking for openings" to start face-to-face talks with Tehran.

The president also said it was time for Iran to change its behavior. Iran must understand that funding terrorist organizations and pursuing nuclear weapons are unacceptable, he said.

Obama also called baseball star Alex Rodriguez' admission that he used steroids "depressing news."

He revealed that his administration is reviewing a Bush-era policy that bans the media from photographing flag-draped coffins of fallen U.S. soldiers.

But the news conference was not about making news. It was the latest in a series of events aimed at convincing Americans that their faith in Obama is deserved. A Gallup Poll shows that 67 percent of the public approves of Obama's work on the stimulus bill while 3 in 10 favor Republicans. A majority of Americans say their confidence in Obama had increased since his inauguration three weeks ago.

It will be tough to retain those numbers. Tougher still to restore the public's faith in government, a case he sought to make Monday night.

"The federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back to life," he said. "It is only government that can break the vicious cycle where lost jobs lead to people spending less money, which leads to even more layoffs."

Obama hit repeatedly at the themes he has emphasized in recent weeks, including at a town hall meeting to promote his plan earlier in the day in Elkhart, Ind.

The town in the nation's heartland has double-digit unemployment and helped Obama put a human face on his urgent plea for more than $800 billion in new spending and tax cuts to jump-start the economy.

"We've had a good debate," he said in a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind. "Now it's time to act. That's why I am calling on Congress to pass this bill immediately. Folks here in Elkhart and across America need help right now, and they can't afford to keep on waiting for folks in Washington to get this done."

Obama was to follow the Monday night news conference with a town hall meeting Tuesday in Fort Myers, Fla., and a visit to a heavy equipment plant Thursday in Illinois.