WASHINGTON -- President Obama is embracing a mantle of confidence-builder in chief. Whether he is meeting with his own economic advisers or worried business leaders, his message is meant to be calm and reassuring -- even in the wake of more bad economic news.
Obama will have another opportunity to assert his optimism after he meets Friday with Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman who now guides the president's economic recovery advisory board. Volcker was preparing to brief Obama and his economic team on how the $787 billion stimulus package is working.
Speaking to a gathering of the nation's CEOs on Thursday, Obama defended his plans for pulling the economy out of a downward spiral, saying that his long-term view gives him reason to maintain optimism despite an uptick in unemployment and falling economic indicators.
"I've never bought into these Malthusian, woe, Chicken Little, the earth is falling. I tend to be pretty optimistic," said Obama, once a long-shot candidate for the White House. "I wouldn't be here if I weren't pretty optimistic."
The president boldly declared that the national crisis is "not as bad as we think" and that he has seen public opinion seesaw without logic.
"A smidgen of good news and suddenly everything is doing great. A little bit of bad news and 'Ooohh, we're down on the dumps,"' he said. "And I am obviously an object of this constantly varying assessment."
Obama disagreed with the choices.
"I don't think things are ever as good as they say, or ever as bad as they say," he added. "Things two years ago were not as good as we thought because there were a lot of underlying weaknesses in the economy. They're not as bad as we think they are now."
In Congress, Obama's budget plans were meeting resistance.
Sen. Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, called the track of future deficits "unsustainable" and singled out Obama's proposal for adding $634 billion in health care spending over the next 10 years.
"Some of us have a real pause about the notion of putting substantially more money into the health care system when we've already got a bloated system," said Conrad, D-N.D.
Richard Parsons, chairman of beleaguered Citigroup Inc., asked if Obama could offer some help in a national battle "between confidence and fear."
It was a similar question facing Obama's treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, before Conrad's committee. Geithner encountered blunt questions about the administration's plans for shoring up the nation's banks. He reiterated the administration's goal to lay out a private-public partnership to make up to $1 trillion in financing available to help banks clear their books of toxic, mortgage-related assets that have led to a national credit freeze.
Geithner hinted more money might be required beyond the existing $700 billion financial rescue fund: "We certainly can start with the resources we have."
But Obama, to business leaders, said not all was lost.
"For all the, you know, angst that's been out there, you've got banking institutions that are still functioning and, lo and behold, making profits," Obama said.
The flurry of comments illustrated the complicated moving parts confronting Washington as the economy continues to decline, credit remains clogged and a new president advances broad and expensive initiatives. The money set aside to address those needs so far has been staggering -- $787 billion for an economic stimulus designed to save and create jobs, the $700 billion approved by Congress for the financial rescue package and hundreds of billions more through programs from the Federal Reserve Bank.
On top of that, Obama wants to overhaul health care, reduce greenhouse-gas pollution and undertake major changes in energy policy. He's projecting a federal deficit of $1.75 trillion this year, by far the largest in history, but says he can get it down to $533 billion by 2013.
"I am not choosing to address these additional challenges just because I feel like it, or because I'm a glutton for punishment," Obama told the Business Roundtable, a group of top business executives. "I am doing so because they are fundamental to our economic growth and to ensuring that we don't have more crises like this in the future."