President Barack Obama offered a bleak portrait of the US economy on Thursday, saying the country is weathering the impact of a debt crisis gripping Europe as he tried to persuade a divided Congress to help him do something about it.
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"Our economy really needs a jolt right now," Obama said, pressing for Congress to pass his $447 billion jobs bill as a way "to guard against another downturn if the situation in Europe gets any worse."
"The biggest headwind the American economy is facing right now is uncertainty about Europe," Obama said.
Democratic leaders are set to bring Obama's jobs bill up for a vote in the Senate next week, but it is not expected to pass for lack of support from Republicans and likely a few Democrats. On Thursday Obama endorsed a proposal from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to enact a 5.6 percent surtax on people who earn more than $1 million a year, saying he is "fine" with adopting the measure to pay for his jobs bill. Republicans are against the tax increase.
The president has urged Congress for several weeks to pass his jobs bill. On Thursday he said lawmakers who vote against it have to explain why, and he vowed to put forward each individual measure in his bill to force Republicans to go on the record.
Senate Republicans on Thursday might make another attempt to force a vote on the president's full jobs bill, a drive to embarrass Democrats by demonstrating the limits of their party's support for the legislation. The GOP may try to offer the bill as an amendment to pending legislation to crack down on China's alleged manipulation of its currency.
Obama has been criticized for not engaging congressional Republicans in his efforts to pass his jobs bill. He defended his strategy of first trying to win public support for the bill outside of Washington, saying he has "gone out of my way in every instance, sometimes at my political peril" to work with congressional Republicans and "each time what we've seen is games playing, a preference to try to score political points rather than try to get something done."
A confluence of economic issues dominated Obama's 75-minute news conference.
The president said he has seen television coverage of the "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations that began in New York City and are spreading to cities across the country, including Washington, D.C. The protesters, he said, are expressing a broader frustration among the public about the US financial system.
Asked why his administration has not prosecuted anyone since the financial collapse, as some liberal Democrats have urged, he said much of what the financial industry did while perhaps immoral was not against the law.
One of Americans' latest frustrations with Wall Street involves new debit-card fees adopted by companies such as Bank of America. Obama said "people have been using financial regulation as an excuse to charge consumers more," but that "banks and businesses in America can price their products at any price they want."
His statement clarified a warning he gave to banks earlier this week, when he suggested in an interview with ABC News that banks "don't have some inherent right just to, you know, get a certain amount of profit, if your customers are being mistreated."
On Thursday Obama said he was not suggesting the government can dictate how companies make profits. He said banks have the right to charge new fees to make up losses, "but it's not good practice."
The president also faced questions about China's currency as the Senate prepares to vote on a bill pressuring Beijing to let its currency rise. Obama said he is concerned the legislation might violate international obligations, such as running afoul of the World Trade Organization rules, and prefers an approach that would be more effective.