Obama Turns Focus Back to Budget not Bonuses

Obama AIG

WASHINGTON — Knocked off balance by the bonuses brouhaha, President Barack Obama is relying on direct appeals to the public to refocus attention on his ambitious agenda and drive the debate.

The president has shouldered responsibility for the mess and, in his radio and Web address Saturday, sought to put the financial finger-pointing behind in favor of his policy pillars — deficit cutting, overhauling health care and energy, improving education.

He will use a flurry of events to make his case, including a network television interview airing Sunday and a prime-time news conference Tuesday. The administration also is expected, as early as Monday, to roll out its plan to rid banks of their toxic assets and speed the flow of loans.

Being heard above the din may prove difficult. Lawmakers are wrangling over taxing people who got big bonuses and worrying the president's budget could generate $9.3 trillion in red ink over the next decade.

"I realize there are those who say these plans are too ambitious to enact," Obama said in his weekend address. "To that I say that the challenges we face are too large to ignore. I didn't come here to pass on our problems to the next president or the next generation — I came here to solve them."

Over the past week, Obama sought to spread his message unfiltered to people, tapping his massive e-mail list to promote his agenda one on one and speaking to enthusiastic supporters at town hall meetings in California. But dominating all else was the disclosure that American International Group Inc. had paid out $165 million in bonuses to employees, including to traders in the financial unit that nearly collapsed the insurer.

The New York Times reported in Sunday editions that the regulatory proposal would include recommendations for increased oversight of executive pay at all banks, Wall Street firms and possibly other companies. The administration was still debating details of the plan including how broadly it should be applied and how far it should go beyond simple reporting requirements, the Times said, quoting unnamed officials.

Treasury spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter would not discuss what changes to executive compensation the administration might propose. She said the whole issue was being examined in the context of an effort to keep executive bonuses from fostering excessive risk taking.

Also this week, the president scrambled to say he was sorry for an offhand remark on NBC's "Tonight Show" in which he compared his inept bowling with "the Special Olympics or something." By Friday evening, the White House was fending off the new dismal deficit estimates from congressional auditors.

Republicans seized on the missteps and used their Saturday address to condemn Obama's budget as a breathtaking spending spree. As states and families are struggling to cut spending, the president's budget "spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much," said Gov. Haley Barbour, R-Miss.

"Absolutely it was a bad week for the president," said Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution congressional scholar. "But, he's not someone to shy away from an ambitious agenda. He's aiming very high and he's not going to trim his ambitions in response to this."

It's also not the first time a president has been knocked off course soon after taking office.

President Bill Clinton won the White House with this campaign mantra: It's the economy, stupid. But he stumbled early on as he tried to fulfill a pledge to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the military. His compromise, "don't ask, don't tell" policy still draws criticism from all sides.

It's important for Obama to understand the public's anger over the bonuses and channel it, using his leadership skills and high approval ratings to regain people's confidence, Mann said.

Obama said Saturday that people are more concerned about having a paycheck and being able to pay college or medical bills than they are about "the news of the day in Washington."

Those are the concerns, he said, that he addresses in his budget, which he calls an economic blueprint for the future. It is "a vision of America where growth is not based on real estate bubbles or over-leveraged banks, but on a firm foundation of investments in energy, education and health care that will lead to a real and lasting prosperity," Obama said.

He also took the opportunity in an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" to affirm his support for beleaguered Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, roundly criticized over the bonus flap and steps to revive the economy.

In an interview set to air Sunday, Obama said that if Geithner offered his resignation, the answer would be, "Sorry buddy, you've still got the job." CBS released excerpts Saturday.

With a nod to Capitol Hill, he said the specific dollar amounts in his budget plan probably will change, but in the end his four priorities must be met.

Those are plans to boost investments in clean energy technologies, including wind and solar power; more money for childhood education programs, affordable college costs and higher standards for schools; a health care overhaul that will lower costs, including Medicare and Medicaid; and a scrutiny on domestic spending that will lead to cuts in the deficit.

"The American people sent us here to get things done, and at this moment of great challenge, they are watching and waiting for us to lead," Obama said. "Let's show them that we are equal to the task before us."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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