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Obama's Skills Put to Test in Economic Stimulus Debate


The U.S. Congress is poised to give final approval to President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan, handing the new president a major political victory in his first few weeks in office. Mr. Obama waged a two-front campaign on behalf of the bill.

In addition to persuading members of Congress, the president went back into campaign mode to win passage of the stimulus bill, reaching out for grassroots support.

During a town meeting in Florida, Mr. Obama took a question from a woman who turned out to be homeless.

"We need something more than a vehicle and parks to go to. We need our own kitchen and our own bathroom. Please help," said Henrietta Hughes.

"Okay, Miss Hughes, well, we are going to do everything we can to help you, but there are a lot of people like you," the president said.

In addition to campaign-style events to build public support, Mr. Obama also went on the offensive during his first presidential news conference.

"With the private sector so weakened by this recession, the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back to life," he said.

Some criticized the president for giving long answers, but University of Virginia political expert Larry Sabato says Mr. Obama continues to demonstrate political powers of persuasion.

"The answers were long, but Obama is still benefiting from the contrast with George W. Bush," said Sabato. "Presidents have a honeymoon not just with the public, but also with the press. The press' questions were respectful and gentle. That will not last. The press is a fair-weather friend. When the weather turns stormy, they will too."

President Obama has been able to unify congressional Democrats, but is having less success winning Republican support, including the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

"This bill misses the mark," he said. "It is full of waste. We have no assurance it will create jobs or revive the economy."

From the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear that passage of his stimulus plan was his top priority.

Experts say the new president used all the political tools at his disposal to make his case.

"It is really important, particularly for someone like Obama who is relatively new to Washington," said Stephen Farnsworth, presidential expert at George Mason University in Virginia. "He was only in the Senate for four years before becoming president. It is really important for Obama to have a clear line of what he needs to do and where he is going to go."

Public opinion appears to be siding with the president, though the polls show more support for him personally than for his stimulus plan.

But Professor Farnsworth believes Mr. Obama had little time to waste in pushing his plan through Congress.

"People are not going to be all that patient," he said. "Unemployment rates are increasing, jobless claims are increasing, foreclosure rates are increasing. There are a lot of things that are not working all that well in America right now, and as a result people, even if they have jobs and even if they are paying their mortgages, they are worried a lot about the future."

Political analysts say the real measure of success for Mr. Obama will not be how quickly he got his plan approved by Congress, but whether the plan actually works to stimulate the economy. And that verdict, they say, will not be rendered for some time.

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