WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — A fired-up Barack Obama ditched his TelePrompter to rally House Democrats and rip Republican opponents of his recovery package Thursday night – at one point openly mocking the GOP for failing to follow through on promises of bipartisanship.
In what was the most pointedly partisan speech of his young presidency, Obama rejected Republican arguments that massive spending in the $819 billion stimulus bill that passed the House should be replaced by a new round of massive tax cuts.
“I welcome this debate, but we are not going to get relief by turning back to the same policies that for the last eight years doubled the national debt and threw our economy into a tailspin,” said President Obama – sounding more like Candidate Obama than at any time since he took the oath of office less than a month ago.
Obama, speaking to about 200 House Democrats at their annual retreat at the Kingsmill Resort and Spa, dismissed Republican attacks against the massive spending in the stimulus.
"What do you think a stimulus is?" Obama asked incredulously. "It’s spending — that's the whole point! Seriously.”
Stabbing hard at Republicans who once aligned themselves with his predecessor, Obama made it clear that the problems he seeks to address with his recovery plan weren’t ones of his making.
“When you start hearing arguments, on the cable chatter, just understand a couple of things,” he said. “No. 1, when they say, ‘Well, why are we spending $800 billion [when] we’ve got this huge deficit?’ – first of all, I found this deficit when I showed up, No. 1.
“I found this national debt, doubled, wrapped in a big bow waiting for me as I stepped into the Oval Office.”
Obama went on to contrast the kind words of House and Senate Republican leaders with their increasingly strident opposition to the stimulus package.
“We were complimented by Republicans saying, ‘This is a balanced package . . . we’re pleasantly surprised,’” he said. “Suddenly, what was a ‘balanced package’ is suddenly out of balance.”
As the Senate deliberated in Washington – and packed it in for the night without finalizing a deal — Obama brushed pressed House Democrats to finalize the bill "without delay" when it emerged from the upper chamber.
"Let's think big right now," the president urged House Democrats. "Let's not think small."
Despite the hero's welcome Obama got at the outset of his remarks, there remain some skeptics of the plan within his own party. But if there was any tension between Obama and the House Democrats, it was hard to see it in the room. Before Obama spoke, House Democrats and their spouses posed for cell phone photos with the president – and even with White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, gobbling berries and cream in white shirtsleeves, rushed out of the hall at one point, barking into his cell phone along the way as he wove between tables packed with his former House colleagues.
When Obama finally spoke, he called Pelosi “a rock” and “the great speaker of the House.” And he said that House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey and other House chairmen had acted with “discipline” in passing their version of the stimulus bill.
And while Obama said Americans are looking for the parties to work together on the stimulus, he said that it’s time to move past “the false theories of the past,” including the notion that tax cuts could cure all ills. In the process, he reminded the Democrats in the room – and the Republicans back in Washington – that he won the election in November.
“If you’re headed for a cliff, you’ve got to change direction,” Obama said. “That’s what the American people called for in November, and that’s what we intend to deliver.”
But Democrats have their work cut out for them if they are going to approve the package without any GOP votes. As Obama circled the room and posed for photos before he spoke, a person in the room spotted Phil Schiliro, the president’s top legislative liaison, huddled in a tense conversation with Obey, the principal author of the House — a reminder that the bill still has a ways to go.