At news conference, Obama is salesman-in-chief

WASHINGTON Wed Mar 25, 2009 1:54pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ronald Reagan was known as the "great communicator." George W. Bush was the self-styled "decider." President Barack Obama could easily be called the "salesman-in-chief."

Obama used a nationally televised news conference on Tuesday night to try to sell Americans on his $3.55 trillion budget proposal and a bank bailout plan, and convince U.S. allies of the need to stimulate the global economy.

As evidence of the overpowering interest in the U.S. economy, the nearly hour-long session at the White House included no mention whatsoever of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, even as a long-awaited review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan is being prepared for release as early as Friday.

His economic message comes at a critical time:

* His budget plan, which includes the main priorities of his entire term in office, is under fire not just from congressional Republicans but also some Democrats just before he visits Capitol Hill on Wednesday to talk about the subject.

* Americans are weary of billion-dollar bailouts, particularly after the political firestorm over AIG's $165 million bonuses last week.

* With Obama traveling to Europe next week for a Group of 20 summit, some U.S. allies are complaining they are not in a position to go as deeply into debt as Obama would like to pay for economic stimulus packages.

So Obama had arguments to make on three fronts: his domestic audience, Wall Street and foreign countries.

He argued that it was critical to use the budget to address rising healthcare costs, to improve education and to spend money on clean energy policies.

"That's why this budget is inseparable from this recovery: because it is what lays the foundation for a secure and lasting prosperity," he said.

ANGER AND CONCILIATION

As for Americans' anger at Wall Street, Obama said it was justified. But then he sounded a conciliatory note, saying people "can't afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit" because it will require banks to start lending again to get the economy moving.

Talking up the need for joint action on the global economy, Obama said: "We don't want a situation in which some countries are making extraordinary efforts and other countries aren't with the hope that somehow the countries that are making those important steps lift everybody up."

Obama's news conference was only the latest event in a sweeping media blitz he has been on lately. He appeared on NBC's "Tonight Show With Jay Leno" last week, CBS' "60 Minutes" on Sunday, and is preparing to answer questions from Americans on Thursday in an online session.

Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, said Obama was making good use of his job approval rating to make his case from the bully pulpit.

"It's all Obama, all the time," he said. "It's his honeymoon period. Who else would do it? (Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton is busy with foreign policy. (Vice President Joe) Biden couldn't do this. Goodness knows (Treasury Secretary) Timothy Geithner can't. It's all on Obama's shoulders."

While Obama enjoys public approval ratings close to 60 percent, a Pew Research Center poll released on March 16 said he was getting mixed reviews about his many major policies to fix the economy.

After taking some heat for laughing while answering a question about bailing out the beleaguered auto industry during the "60 Minutes" interview, Obama returned to his "no drama" style.

Tuesday's prime-time news conference was not a lively event. There were no fireworks other than a flash of presidential ire at a question over why Obama waited days to express outrage at AIG's executive bonuses after the insurance giant received up to $180 billion in taxpayer bailout funds.

"It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak," he said curtly.

(Editing by Chris Wilson)

(Washington Newsroom (202) 898-8300; e-mail: steve.holland@reuters.com)

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