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Obama Pleased With Progress But Not Satisfied


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. He may have said the hundred-day milestone is irrelevant, but that did not stop President Obama from embracing it. And even if the exact date doesn't matter, the general concept does. Several modern presidents, though not all of them, had their biggest legislative achievements relatively early in their terms. President Obama marked his hundredth day with a town hall meeting in Missouri, a swing state he narrowly lost in November. He held a prime-time news conference too. Here's NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: One hundred days is less than one-tenth of a presidential term, but Washington is obsessed with measuring the Obama presidency to date. And the president himself joined in yesterday, ticking off a list of accomplishments -his economic stimulus bill, a new direction in foreign policy, a $3.6 trillion budget, and plans on the table to reform health care, energy and financial re-regulation.

President BARACK OBAMA: I think we're off to a good start. But it's just a start. I'm proud of what we've achieved but I'm not content. I'm pleased with our progress but I'm not satisfied.

LIASSON: Mr. Obama is satisfied, however, with the latest political development. Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter just switched parties, increasing the Democrats' majority in the Senate to 59. It's likely that in a few months Democrat Al Franken will win the contested Senate race in Minnesota. That will give the Democrats and the president 60 votes in the Senate, enough to cut off a Republican filibuster. And armed with that new-found clout, Mr. Obama described a new approach to bipartisanship, one on his terms.

Instead of meeting Republicans in the middle, the president offered the opposition a collaborative but definitely subordinate role in passing his agenda. He said he wasn't interested in Republican ideas that have been repudiated by the voters in the last election.

Pres. OBAMA: If on the other hand the definition is that we're open to each other's ideas, there are going to be some differences, the majority will probably be determinative when it comes to resolving just hardcore differences that we can't resolve. But there is a whole host of other areas where we can work together, then I think we can make progress.

LIASSON: President Obama has had so many crises to deal with since he was elected. The latest is swine flu, which is spreading around the world and may soon be classified a pandemic. Mr. Obama repeated his message that the flu is a cause for deep concern but not panic. And he offered this reassuring bit of public health advice.

Pres. OBAMA: Wash your hands when you shake hands. Cover your mouth when you cough. I know it sounds trivial, but it makes a huge difference. If you are sick, stay home. If your child is sick, keep them out of school. If you are feeling certain flu symptoms, don't get on an airplane, don't get on any system of public transportation where you're confined and you could potentially spread the virus.

LIASSON: The president engaged his critics on what is probably the single most controversial decision he's made so far - releasing the Bush Justice Department torture memos.

Pres. OBAMA: I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do. Not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.

LIASSON: There's a raging debate about whether, as the president argues, the release of the memos made the country safer, or as former Vice President Dick Cheney alleges, more vulnerable. Mr. Obama was also asked about Pakistan. He described the government there as very fragile, but he said he was confident that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal would not fall into the hands of the Taliban. On domestic issues he reiterated his desire to find a kind of middle ground on abortion. And he probably disappointed pro-choice advocates when he stated flatly that the Freedom of Choice Act was, quote, "not my highest legislative priority."

And he may also have disappointed Hispanics when he declined to call for an immigration reform bill this year, saying instead his goal for the year was merely to move the process forward. The president also described the role he wants the government to play as it becomes the majority shareholder in auto companies and financial institutions.

Pres. OBAMA: I don't think that we should micro-manage, but I think that like any investor, the American taxpayer has the right to scrutinize what's being proposed and make sure that their money is not just being thrown down the drain. And so we've got to strike a balance.

LIASSON: This is a tricky subject for Mr. Obama. Nationalization in any form is deeply unpopular.

Pres. OBAMA: I want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy, you know, meddling in the private sector. If you could tell me right now that when I walked into this office that the banks were humming, the autos were selling, and that all you had to worry about was Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, getting health care passed, figuring out how to deal with energy independence, deal with Iran, and a pandemic flu, I would take that deal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: And that's why I'm always amused when I hear these, you know, criticisms of, oh, you know, Obama wants to grow government. No, I would love a nice lean portfolio to deal with. But that's not the hand that's been dealt us.

LIASSON: Judging by his level of activity and his approval ratings 100 days in, President Obama appears to be playing that hand pretty well.

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

Mara Liasson
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.
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