WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Monday he doesn't care that the Great Recession has been declared over by a group of economists. For the millions of people who are out of work or otherwise struggling, he said, "it's still very real for them."
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Obama denied that he was anti-business or anti-Wall Street in his economic proposals, commenting under close questioning during a town hall-style meeting broadcast live on CNBC.
He offered a mixed verdict on the growing tea party, calling its skepticism of government "healthy...That's in our DNA, right?"Story: ‘Great Recession’ over, research group says
But, he added, "The challenge for the tea party movement is to identify specifically 'What would you do?'" to help turn around the economy and produce jobs.
"It's not enough just to say, 'Get control of government.' I think it's important for you to say, 'You know, I'm willing to cut veterans' benefits or Social Security benefits or I'm willing to see these taxes go up.'"Video: CNBC: Town hall meeting with Obama (on this page)
The government can't simply cut taxes on the nation's wealthiest people "and magically think things are going to work out," he said.
Focusing on the poor economic conditions that existed when he took office, Obama said, "The hole was so deep that a lot of people out there are still hurting."
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He spoke shortly after the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private panel of economists that dates the beginnings and ends of recessions, said the downturn that began in December 2007 ended in June 2009. At 18 months, that makes it the longest recession since World War II.
"Something that took ten years to create is going to take a little more time to solve," Obama said.
"Even though economists may say that the recession officially ended last year, obviously for the millions of people who are still out of work, people who have seen their home values decline, people who are struggling to pay the bills day to day, it's still very real for them," Obama said.
He participated in the hour-long session before heading to Pennsylvania to raise money for Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak, who is locked in a tight race for a seat considered a must-win for the president's party. The seat is currently in Democratic hands, but polls show it to be a tight race.
The group assembled for the session included large and small business owners, teachers, students and unemployed people.
A woman who said she was the chief financial officer for a veterans' service organization told Obama, "I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now."
"Is this my new reality?" she asked.
Obama told her, "My goal is not to convince you that everything is where it ought to be. It's not." Still, Obama said that things were "moving in the right direction" under policies he has put in place.
Republican Party chief Michael Steele panned Obama's TV performance. "Once again, President Obama trotted out the same old worn-out reassurances on the economy, but Americans are still waiting for the promised recovery that never arrived," Steele said.
A 30-year old law school graduate who said he couldn't find a job and couldn't even make interest payments on his student loans told Obama he was inspired by Obama's 2008 campaign but "that inspiration is dying away."
"The most important thing we can do right now is grow our economy," Obama said. "What we can't do is go back to the same old things we were doing."
CNBC's John Harwood, the moderator, asked Obama if he had any plans to replace his two top economic advisers — Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and chief economic adviser Lawrence Summers. House Republican leader John Boehner has called for Obama to fire both of them, contending their economic advice to him has not been helpful.
Obama sidestepped a direct answer but said, "This is tough work that they do."
"We're constantly asking, 'Is what we're doing working as well as it could?'"
Harwood at one point asked Obama how serious he was about deficit reduction. Polls show that Americans are deeply concerned about the government's rising deficit, and Republicans have repeatedly tried to make it a campaign issue, calling for more government belt tightening.
"I can't give tax cuts to the top 2 percent of Americans ... and lower the deficit at the same time," Obama said. "At some point, the numbers just don't work."
"The first thing you do in a hole is not dig it deeper."
Obama pressed his effort to cast Democrats as fighters for the middle class and Republicans as protectors of "millionaires and billionaires" and special interests.
He has called on Congress to allow Bush-era tax cuts to expire on schedule at the end of this year for those with household incomes above $250,000 — but to extend them for everybody else.
Obama says it would cost $700 billion over ten years to extend the cuts for those in the upper income range, a group that makes up roughly 2 percent of taxpayers. What Obama wants to do would cost about $3 trillion over ten years.
A combination of the Bush tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a reduction in tax revenues because of the recession and stimulus and bailout spending by both the Bush and Obama administrations has resulted in an estimated $1.5 trillion deficit for the budget year that ends at the end of September.
Obama was asked by Harwood whether we was willing to debate Boehner, who would probably become House speaker if Republicans take back the House of Representatives in November.
He indicated such a debate was unlikely. "It's premature to say that John Boehner is going to be speaker of the House," Obama said.
A member of the audience who said he was a hedge fund manager and a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama said many on Wall Street feel as if he's treating them like a pinata. "We certainly feel like we've been whacked by a stick."
"If you're making a billion dollars a year after a very bad financial crisis where 8 million people lost their jobs and small businesses can't get loans, then I think that you shouldn't be feeling put upon," Obama said.
"Most folks on Main Street feel like they've been beat upon," he said, and "there's a big chunk of the country that feels I have been too soft on Wall Street. What I've tried to do is just be practical."
He said his policies have not been "extremist" or "anti-business."
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