President Obama, confronting some of his biggest critics in the business community and going to the place where the tea party movement got its start, today offered a stout defense of his economic policies and challenged tea party activists to be more specific in their positions.
For more than an hour, the president fielded questions from Wall Street executives, CFOs, hedge fund managers and other business leaders skeptical of his stewardship of the economy at a CNBC-hosted and -aired "economic town hall forum."
Obama drew laughter and applause from the studio audience when he responded to a question from a former law school classmate, now a hedge fund manager, who wanted to know why he was treating Wall Street "like a pinata."
"I have been amused over the last couple years," said Obama, "by this sense of somehow me beating up on Wall Street. I think most folks on Main Street feel like they got beat up on."
He added, "I'll be honest with you that there is a big chunk of the country that thinks I have been too soft on Wall Street. ... What I've tried to do is just be practical."
When a CEO complained that Obama is treating business leaders "like dogs," the president insisted he is "absolutely not" vilifying business. He recalled the businesses that demanded that he "do something" to rescue the economy. "Those same businesses now are profitable," he said.
Obama made clear that he understood his surroundings when he fielded a question from CNBC commentator Rick Santelli and pointedly recalled what he called Santelli's 2009 "rant" that is often credited with giving rise to the tea party movement.
The president cited what he called "a noble tradition" of Americans having "healthy skepticism" of government. But he said today's tea partiers need to go beyond opposition to spending.
"The problem that I've seen in the debate that has been taking place in some of these tea party events is that they are misidentifying who the culprits are here. ... We had two tax cuts that weren't paid for, two wars that aren't paid for, a population getting older."
He said it is time for the tea party backers "to identify specifically what you would do. It is not enough just to say get control of spending," but to say what they would cut.
He also insisted that the federal government today is "less intrusive than it was 30 years [ago]."
Asked if he would replace Treasury Secretary Geithner or economic adviser Lawrence Summers, the president said, "I have not made any determinations about personnel."
He added, "They've been at it for two years, and they're going to have a whole range of decisions about family that will factor into this."
The president also sidestepped a question of his willingness to debate House Minority Leader Boehner, saying only, "I think that it is premature to say that John Boehner is going to be speaker of the House."
This article appears in the September 25, 2010 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.