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Obama Raises Rhetoric On Stimulus

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And as we mentioned, President Obama stepped up his rhetoric on the stimulus package today. It was a day when the Labor Department reported jobless claims at the highest levels since 1982. NPR's Mara Liasson reports from the White House.

MARA LIASSON: The White House says President Obama is impatient, and he is dealing with a frustrating political situation. Every day the economic numbers get worse. But every day public support for his stimulus plan goes down. The bill is still popular. But now, according to a recent Gallup poll, just as many people think it needs major changes as think it should pass as proposed. Earlier this week, Mr. Obama said he wanted to, quote, get this thing back on track. And today he tried with a blast at what he called Republicans' worn-out ideas.

President BARACK OBAMA: In last few days we have seen proposals arise from some in Congress that you may not have read, but you'd be very familiar with, because you've been hearing them for the last 10 years - maybe longer. They're rooted in the idea that tax cuts alone can solve all our problems, that government doesn't have a role to play, that half measures and tinkering are somehow enough.

LIASSON: The president also published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post saying much the same thing. And he continued reaching out to moderate Republicans. Today he said he too wanted the bill to change.

President OBAMA: No plan's perfect. There've been constructive changes made to this one over the last several weeks. I would love to see additional improvements today.

LIASSON: Exactly what additional improvements he would love to see, the president didn't say. Although in private meetings he and other White House officials are encouraging Congress members to strip out some spending that -however virtuous - may not actually stimulate the economy. But publicly, the White House is steering clear of specifics. Today, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs even refused to say whether the president supported an amendment passed by the Senate to give tax credits to new car buyers.

And at an event calling attention to the bill's investments in transportation, Vice President Joe Biden said it's not the administration's moment to get involved in specifics. Democrats on Capitol Hill are telling the White House they're unhappy because Republicans have skillfully defined the bill by focusing on individual items that look and sound a lot like pork. The White House is frustrated too, as it struggles to control the way the stimulus plan is perceived.

Dan Pfeiffer is President Obama's deputy communications director. He says even with the biggest bully pulpit in the country, controlling the debate is more complicated than it was during the campaign.

Mr. DAN PFEIFFER (White House Deputy Communications Director): In a world in which you have Congress, you have opponents to your initiatives on both of the aisle, where you have a media fascination with things, there may be distractions from what you're trying to say. It's never going to go as well as you want, and that's happened over the course of our 15 days. But I would certainly put our 15 days in the White House up against those of any previous president.

LIASSON: Tonight, if the stimulus plan passes the Senate with bipartisan support, that claim will have some merit. Then the bill will move on to a House-Senate conference committee, where White House officials say they'll be able to more directly shape the final product.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.