WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama pressed Congress Monday night to urgently approve a massive economic recovery bill, using the first prime-time news conference of his presidency to warn that a failure to act "could turn a crisis into a catastrophe."
With the nation falling deeper into a long and painful recession, Obama defended his program against Republican criticism that it is loaded with pork-barrel spending and will not create jobs.
"The plan is not perfect," the president said, addressing the nation from the East Room of the White House. "No plan is. I can't tell you for sure that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hope, but I can tell you with complete confidence that a failure to act will only deepen this crisis as well as the pain felt by millions of Americans."
Obama said his administration inherited a deficit of more than $1 trillion along with "the most profound economic emergency since the Great Depression."
"That is a deficit that could turn a crisis into a catastrophe. And I refuse to let that happen. As long as I hold this office, I will do whatever it takes to put this country back to work."
Earlier Monday, Obama traveled to Elkhart, Ind., a community reeling in job losses during the recession, to make his case. He was to visit Florida, another region smarting badly from the economic meltdown, on Tuesday.
"Doing nothing is not an option," Obama warned during a town hall meeting in Elkhart, where unemployment has passed 15 percent.
At his news conference, Obama said: "If there's anyone out there who still doesn't believe this constitutes a full-blown crisis, I suggest speaking to one of the millions of Americans whose lives have been turned upside down because they don't know where their next paycheck is coming from."
Taking questions from reporters, Obama also addressed these topics:
— Afghanistan: He said it was too early to give a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.
— Iran: He is "looking for openings" in the coming months to start face-to-face talks.
— Bank bailout: He was not sure if the government would need more than the remaining $350 billion of bank bailout funds to restore the ailing U.S. financial system. He said his first task would be making sure those funds were spent wisely and with transparency.