Obama Describes Big-Government Solutions as Unwanted, but Necessary

President Obama denied Wednesday during his prime-time press conference that he wanted to grow government, but rather described the meltdowns in the auto and financial industries as unwanted distractions that his administration had to address with federal intervention. 

Obama said he'd "love a nice lean portfolio" but conceded his administration has been handed a "big set of challenges." Obama defended his heavy-handed approach to those challenges. 

Offering a summary of his first 100 days in office, Obama also looked back even further, complimenting President Bush's preparations to fight a possible flu pandemic while accusing the his predecessor's administration of sanctioning torture

Obama addressed questions on everything from the economy to swine flu to Sen. Arlen Specter's switch to the Democratic Party at his third prime-time news conference since taking office. 

After taking questions for an hour, the president concluded by attempting to dispel charges that he's a big-government president by design. 

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"I don't want to run auto companies. I don't want to run banks. I've got two wars I've got to run already -- I've got more than enough to do," he said. "So the sooner we can get out of that business, the better off we're going to be. We are in unique circumstances." 

He said he's "amused" by charges that he wants to grow government. 

"I want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy meddling in the private sector," Obama said. 

"If you could tell me right now that when I walked into this office, that the banks were humming, the autos were selling and that all you had to worry about was Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, getting health care passed, figuring out how to deal with energy independence, deal with Iran and a pandemic flu -- I would take that deal." 

With regard to the auto sector, Obama said the federal government is intervening to help America's automakers survive and eventually become globally competitive.

Obama said he was feeling more optimistic about automaker Chrysler's health. Chrysler, facing a Thursday deadline to submit a restructuring plan, reportedly has struck a deal to partner with Fiat SpA. 

Obama also defended key moves he's made in the first 100 days, including his decisions to ban harsh interrogation techniques and release a string of legal memos that outlined the justification for such "enhanced" techniques under the Bush administration, like waterboarding which was eventually abandoned. 

"This is a decision I am very comfortable with and I think the American people over time will recognize it is better for us to stick to who we are even when we're taking on an unscrupulous enemy," he said. 

Obama pledged to do whatever is required to protect the homeland but urged the country not to use "short cuts" to fight extremists. Asked whether the Bush administration had tortured detainees despite it being against U.S. law, Obama responded, "I believe that waterboarding is torture." 

Obama expressed confidence in his early accomplishments but also suggested he's only begun to implement his ambitious agenda. 

"I think we're off to a good start, but it's just a start," Obama said. "I'm proud of what we've achieved, but I'm not content. I'm pleased with our progress, but I'm not satisfied." 

On the economy, Obama praised Congress for just hours earlier passing a $3.4 trillion version of his budget blueprint, calling that a key plank in his plans for economic recovery. Obama warned that more jobs and homes will be lost before the recession ends, but he pledged "unrelenting, unyielding" effort from his administration to strengthen American prosperity and security. 

"We have to lay a new foundation for growth -- a foundation that will strengthen our economy and help us compete in the 21st century," Obama said. 

Obama's aides had downplayed his 100th day as the equivalent of a "Hallmark holiday," but the president was not squandering the opportunity to publicly review his first three months in office and guide the narrative of those ahead. 

He held the press conference after holding two other high-profile events, to mark the end of the opening phase of a presidency that has pressed an ambitious agenda even as it has been hit with mounting domestic and international challenges. 

In that context, the sudden flu outbreak that threatens to reach pandemic levels has added to the variety -- but not the intensity -- of challenges being tackled by the young administration, which has fanned out in recent days to assure the public it is taking every precaution to stem the spread of the virus. 

Obama said Wednesday the government is taking "utmost precautions and preparations" and is prepared to do "whatever it takes to control the impact of this virus." 

But he said his administration is not recommending closing the U.S.-Mexico border, saying he's been advised doing so would be "akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out." 

Instead, he urged Americans to assume "great vigilance" in preventing the spread of the strain. 

Obama also said he does not believe Specter, who switched from a Republican to a Democrat on Tuesday, will help deliver him a "rubber stamp Senate." Specter puts the Democrats one seat away from a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority. 

And asked about the threat Islamic extremists pose to Pakistan's government, Obama said he's confident Pakistan's nuclear arsenal will be secure. 

"We need to help Pakistan help Pakistanis," he said.