Saturday, Feb. 20, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Obama in Las Vegas
- Obama touts Harry Reid’s efforts, says stimulus ‘right thing to do’ (2-19-2010)
- Obama to announce new foreclosure rescue program in Las Vegas (2-19-2010)
- Obama lands in Las Vegas for second visit of presidency (2-18-2010)
- Obama and Reid forge bond beyond politics as usual (2-18-2010)
- Green Valley High will host Obama town hall meeting (2-16-2010)
President Barack Obama bounded to the stage at Green Valley High School to cheers. He’s rail thin and has a grin as wide as his head. He seems to feel most at home on the road, in front of what remains of his still-adoring Obama Nation, mixing it up, speechifying and cracking wise.
At a series of stops Friday in Southern Nevada, he must have felt nostalgic for the 20-plus times he came here as a candidate, when all he had to do was fire up a crowd.
In Henderson, he offered his recalibrated economic stump speech, in which he said he had made tough, unpopular decisions such as bailing out the financial system and the auto companies to bring the country back from the brink of another Great Depression.
He took off his jacket — applause — and took questions, making it look easy as he shifted from health care to the economy to energy to the archaic technology of our air traffic control system.
Obama looked so comfortable, it was as if the world outside had stopped. But it hadn’t.
Nevada’s unemployment rate is 13 percent and has risen sharply since Obama took office. Last year’s fourth quarter saw another rise in foreclosures, with Nevada again owning the distinction of foreclosure capital of America.
After dithering for months, Democrats have failed to pass health care reform. The president’s party surrendered the Massachusetts Senate seat once held by Edward Kennedy, who died in August, so Republicans can obstruct any and all legislation, imperiling the entire health care project.
In short, although Obama looks calm and refreshed lately, his political situation is close to dire.
Still, Obama seemed invigorated by his new, more muscular message: “Economists of every stripe were warning that (a depression) was a real possibility. And that meant that we had to make some decisions swiftly, boldly and not always popular, but decisions that were necessary,” he said. “It wasn’t a time for satisfying the politics of the moment, it wasn’t time for just playing to the cameras — it was time for doing what was right.”
Rescuing the financial system and the auto companies and passing the economic stimulus package wound up being politically unpopular, but each has worked as designed, Obama said. The banking system has stabilized, auto production is expected to be up 69 percent the first three months of this year over last year’s first quarter, even as GM has begun repaying loans from the government, and the stimulus program prevented the loss of an additional 2 million jobs and began the path toward recovery by acting as a bulwark against a deeper recession, Obama said.
(Although they disagree somewhat with the actual number of jobs saved, private-sector economists such as Macroeconomic Advisers, Mark Zandi of Moody’s Economy.com and IHS/Global Insight agree with Obama’s assertion about the stimulus.)
Obama did not come merely to defend his policies. He announced $1.5 billion for the five states hardest hit by foreclosures, including Nevada, which was a gift to Sen. Harry Reid, the man charged with shepherding Obama’s legislative agenda through Congress. Obama seemed to take real pleasure in several shout-outs, both in Henderson and later on the Strip, to the U.S. Senate majority leader, who suffers from dismal poll numbers and is fighting for his political life.
At CityCenter, Obama helped Reid by quickly dispensing with the locals’ ire. He did not apologize for recent remarks that a family saving for college should not go blow money on Vegas, but he gave the city an endorsement: “I love Vegas,” he said to a standing ovation.
He then took on his critics, calling hypocrisy on Republicans who voted against the stimulus package only to turn around and attend ribbon-cuttings for federal projects in their districts.
“It’s a sight to see,” he said, eliciting laughter. “They’re up there cheesing and grinning. They’re trying to vote against their cake and eat it, too.”
The recalibrated Obama message machine appears to have emboldened the president, who made several calls Friday for a renewed push on health care.
Obama also took aim at Republicans who have decried his administration’s agenda as socialist.
“There are those who suggest that the only way government can promote strong markets is to allow them to operate wholly outside even the most modest rules of the road, even the most sensible reform,” he said, citing Republican opposition to health care reform and financial regulation. “While I respect those who sincerely hold this view, the facts, and our history, do not favor this argument.”
He said the role of the federal government is to bolster the free market, not stifle it.
He placed the stimulus in a long line of popular government programs aimed at catalyzing the economy and helping Americans pull themselves up. He cited the creation of Social Security and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in the wake of the Great Depression, the GI Bill after World War II, as well as the building of highways and railroads.
“At those moments, government has stepped in not to supplant private enterprise, but to catalyze it — to create the conditions for entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and ultimately to thrive,” Obama said.
Las Vegas, he said, is a living example. The city grew and thrived because of a combination of private investment and a strong regulatory structure, he said.
Not all is well here, however.
And there’s the rub for Obama, and more important, for Reid. For all of Obama’s powers as a communicator, the reality is unchanged: Nevada job losses accelerated at the close of 2009.
That clash between rhetoric and reality created a perfect synergy with Republican attacks.
In a news release, Republican National Committee spokesman Jahan Wilcox asked, “Do you truly believe that Harry Reid’s $862 billion stimulus has worked for Nevada? Because since the legislation was signed into law, Nevada has lost over 65,000 jobs and unemployment has risen from 10 to 13 percent.”
How voters view that question, and whether conditions change between now and November, will determine the fate of Reid, and, quite possibly, the Obama presidency.
Sun reporter Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report from Washington.