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President Obama Slams Congress As He Welcomes Economy's Gains

President Barack Obama upbraided Congress Friday, saying that lawmakers haven't done enough to help America's economic recovery.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama upbraided Congress Friday, saying that lawmakers haven't done enough to help America's economic recovery.

Touting rosy U.S. economic news that has come out this week, President Obama said America's recovery from a debilitating recession is well underway. But he also said the economy "could be doing even better" if Congress were working harder.

Citing the 200,000 jobs created in July – continuing a six-month streak of at least that level – Obama noted that it was "the first time that has happened since 1997."

Today's monthly jobs report showed that 209,000 jobs had been added to the U.S. market, as NPR reported earlier today. But not every person who's been hired has been able to find full-time work, as we also noted.

"The good news is, the economy clearly is getting stronger," the president said. "Unfortunately, there are a series of steps we could be taking" to create more jobs and boost wages – but Congress isn't taking action, Obama said.

Speaking as Congress was poised to leave Washington for a five-week break, Obama told reporters in the White House Briefing Room, "while they're out on vacation, I'm going to have to make some tough choices to meet the challenge,"

We'll note that later this month, the Obama family is taking its own summer vacation, for a little over two weeks.

The president spoke Friday afternoon shortly after meeting with members of Congress in the Cabinet Room. And while Obama thanked Congress for approving new funding for the Veterans Administration and for transportation projects, he said that for the most part, the "big-ticket items" that could help middle-class families had been ignored.

He went on to talk about immigration problems along the southern U.S. border, accusing Republicans in the House of focusing on a "message bill" that has no hope of becoming law.

Saying that Republicans in Congress don't agree with one another on the best approach to immigration, Obama said, "I'm just one of the people they disagree with on this issue."

Venting his frustration, the president said, "They can't pass the bill. They can't even pass their own version of the bill."

Obama also said that Congress had also held back other issues, such as improvements to student loan programs and the approval of career diplomats whose ambassador posts. He stated that in the current environment, even "basic, commonsense, plain vanilla" legislation had no chance of passing.

Responding to a question about Israel's fight with Hamas, Obama said both he and UN had condemned Hamas Friday for disrupting a cease-fire this morning by killing two Israeli soldiers and taking another hostage.

He also said that "innocent civilians in Gaza, caught in the crossfire, have to weigh on our conscience."

Obama noted that both the situation in the Middle East – and a possible solution — are difficult.

"The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been going on for even longer than you've been reporting," Obama told one journalist.

Questioned about how the U.S. might use its influence to bring about peace between Israel and Hamas — and also between Ukraine and Russia — President Obama noted that his administration is working hard to bring calm to those areas.

But Obama said of the participants in those talks, "They've got to want it."

"People don't always act rationally" or in their long-term interests, the president said.

Pressed to answer more questions before leaving the briefing room, Obama was asked about the CIA's use of "enhanced interrogation" in its effort to fight terrorism, as well as its intrusion into computers belonging to congressional staffers.

Obama said he was confident the agency wouldn't make similar mistakes again — and he acknowledged that the problems were significant.

"We tortured some folks," the president said. "We did some things that are contrary to our values."

He went on to say that he could understand why the incidents had occurred, noting the fear and pressure the nation felt after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"It's important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job those folks had," Obama said. "But having said all that, we did some things that are wrong."

He added, "When we engaged in some of these enhanced interrogation techniques, techniques that I believe — and I think any fairminded person would believe — were torture, we crossed a line. And that needs to be understood and accepted. And we have to, as a country, take responsibility for that so that hopefully we don't do it again in the future."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.