NEW: Holder assigns prosecutors to investigate leaks
Boehner, Cantor say stop the "blame game"
Congressional gridlock, partisanship hurting economic recovery, Obama says
President rejects allegations that the White House leaked national security information
President Barack Obama said Friday that partisan gridlock has helped hobble economic growth and has brought legislative business to a crawl, and he put the blame squarely on an uncooperative Congress.
“If Congress decides, despite all that, that they aren’t going to do anything about this simply because it’s an election year, then they should explain to the American people why,” he said in the White House briefing room.
“There’s gonna be plenty of time to debate our respective plans for the future. That’s a debate I’m eager to have. But right now, people in this town should be focused on doing everything we can to keep our recovery going and keeping our country strong, and that requires some action on the part of Congress.”
Republican congressional leadership blasted right back, accusing the president of finger-pointing when it comes to the nation’s economic woes.
“We just listened to the president say that the private sector is doing fine. And my question would be to the president: Are you kidding? Did he see the job numbers that came out last week? The private sector is not doing fine,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, said in remarks after the president’s.
“And, frankly, I’d ask the president to stop engaging in the blame game. It’s not because of the headwinds of Europe. It’s not – despite his attempts and his party’s attempts here in Congress – it is not because of House Republicans. It’s because of the failed stimulus policies and other items in his agenda that small businesses in this country just aren’t growing.”
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also criticized the president’s characterization of a private sector on the upswing.
“Is he really that out of touch? I think he’s defining what it means to be detached and out of touch with the American people,” Romney told a gathering of supporters in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
“We have actually seen some good momentum in the private sector,” Obama said later in the day in an effort to clarify his earlier remarks.
Obama’s Friday statements cap a politically tough week. And with just five months before the general election, Obama is at a pivotal point both in his presidency and his campaign.
Spillover from the European debt crisis threatens U.S. attempts to right its own economy. A European recession would mean U.S. companies sell less overseas, which would further cripple the pace of the recovery, the president said.
Obama was also forced to go on the defensive against Republican criticism that the dismal jobs outlook is evidence that he has done a poor job of handling the economy. Hiring slowed in May, and unemployment rose to 8.2%.
According to a recent CNN/ORC International poll, 31% of voters believe that the economy will get better if Romney wins, compared with 28% who believe the economy will improve under Obama.
In calling on Congress to pass the jobs proposal he pitched earlier, which included employer incentives to boost hiring in the construction, public safety and education sectors, among other areas, the president was also appealing to a segment that helps form the base of his support: teachers and labor unions.
Obama also strongly rejected Republican accusations that his administration deliberately leaked classified information about a cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear centrifuge program.
Late Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder said he had assigned two U.S. attorneys to lead investigations into the possible leaking of state secrets.
“The unauthorized disclosure of classified information can compromise the security of this country and all Americans, and it will not be tolerated,” he said in a statement.
The White House has fended off accusations from Republican leaders, including former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, that the administration had leaked classified information.
“The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive,” Obama said Friday. “It is wrong, and people, I think, need to have a better sense of how I approach this office and how the people around me here approach this office.
“We are dealing with issues that can touch on the safety and security of the American people, our families, or our military personnel or our allies. And so we don’t play with that.”
The leaks are an issue that will probably continue to plague the administration even as the president seeks to turn the focus toward the sluggish U.S. economy and its symbiotic relationship with the ailing European economy. The world’s largest economies are closely watching the spiraling European debt crisis, which could affect world markets.
Obama was also beset with problems on the fund-raising front. Romney outraised the president by roughly $17 million.
And the Obama campaign scrambled to regain control of its message when former President Bill Clinton suggested extending the so-called Bush tax cuts for the wealthy – a move Obama opposes – and complimented Romney on his “sterling” business career.
The economy will be the main determining factor in whether Obama remains in office, said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.”
“Obama’s hope for a second term is that the pressure will build because of the need to act on the budget and unwillingness to live with the status quo,” Mann said.