WASHINGTON - President Obama said yesterday that he was confident that his economic-recovery legislation, the subject of intense final negotiations yesterday on Capitol Hill, would save or create three million to four million jobs even with spending cuts required to get Senate approval.
"I would argue what's most likely is we undercount jobs," Obama said during a 55-minute interview in the White House Roosevelt Room with reporters from 16 regional newspapers, including The Inquirer. The interview ranged widely but centered mostly on the stimulus bill.
If aid to states in the bill saves a teacher's job, for instance, "you're probably not counting the fact that that teacher is still going to the dry cleaner down the street," Obama said. "I think the ripple effects of this package won't be entirely documentable, but I think it will be significant."
He noted that Caterpillar Inc., the maker of heavy equipment, said it might rescind 20,000 planned layoffs because of demand for its products that would be created for infrastructure projects in the bill.
Obama spoke just after Senate leaders announced that an agreement had been reached reconciling competing versions of the legislation. He later issued a statement welcoming the deal.
On the cusp of the first major achievement of his young presidency, Obama was calm and relaxed in the interview, joking afterward: "You ran me through my paces pretty good. I'll wipe my brow."
Because of the filibuster rule in the Senate, which requires securing 60 votes to end debate so controversial legislation can move forward, "no president expects to get 100 percent of what they want, and I'm no different," Obama said.
He credited the group of moderates who agreed on a set of spending cuts to reach that goal with putting the nation's interests ahead of partisan considerations, citing Sens. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe (both R., Maine) and Ben Nelson (D., Neb.).
"They were the key actors in this process," Obama said.
Although the initial bills won only three Republican votes in the entire Congress - the crucial senators who ensured passage - Obama said he did not think he would have trouble building Republican support for other important parts of his agenda, on health care and energy policy, for instance. He noted substantial GOP support for the children's health-insurance bill he signed last week.
"We had a lot of Republican votes, not just two or three," Obama said. "Look, this recovery package, because it is so high-profile, and because it's the first and largest piece of legislation coming out of the new administration - for all those reasons . . . some of the old habits in Washington spilled over."
He said he would continue to reach out to "thoughtful Republicans."
On other topics, Obama said he would not urge a delay in consideration of the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation sought by organized labor that would make it easier for unions to win the right to represent workers.
Business groups are fiercely opposed, saying that the bill - which would allow unions to be certified by workers' signatures, without a secret ballot, and would require arbitration - would increase costs.
"I don't buy the argument that providing workers with collective-bargaining rights somehow weakens the economy or worsens the business environment," Obama said. "If you've got workers who have decent pay and benefits, they're also customers for business."
At the same time, Obama said business had legitimate concerns. He said he would like to see labor and business groups work together on a compromise.
"Whether those conversations can bear fruit over the next several months, we'll see," he said. "But I'm always a big believer in before we gear up for some tooth-and-nail battle, that we see if some accommodations can't be found."
Obama also said he wanted to provide "serious help" to the domestic auto industry, but only if General Motors and Chrysler, which are seeking $17.4 billion in government loans, show how they will transform their businesses.
"Get me a plan that works," he said.
Earlier yesterday, Obama continued his recent pattern of stumping for the stimulus package outside Washington, visiting a highway project in Springfield, Va., to say that "the time for talk has passed." Obama traveled to northern Indiana on Monday and Florida on Tuesday to argue for his plan.
"You don't need to travel very far from that debate to see why enacting this plan is both urgent and essential to recovery," he said, standing with Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia on a windy hillside near the Fairfax County Parkway connector project, with bulldozers in the distance. Today, he heads to Peoria, Ill., to visit a Caterpillar plant.
At the end of yesterday's interview, someone asked Obama about a wooden box with a gold presidential seal and a red button on the table in front of his chair.
"If any of you really got me mad, I would press the button, and . . ." Obama joked. Seriously, he said it was a panic button to summon the Secret Service in an emergency. "No bombs," he said.
And on at least one matter, the president refused to take a stand: Who would win last night's basketball game between the University of North Carolina and Duke? He honestly didn't know, he said. Besides, Obama said, he would not want to go against his personal assistant, Reggie Love, a player on Duke's 2001 national championship team.
"If I said anything contrary to Duke," Obama said, "I might not be able to find my BlackBerry."