U.S. President Barack Obama walks toward the Oval Office at the White House Sept. 8, 2010.UPI/Olivier Douliery/Pool | License Photo
WASHINGTON, Sept. 10 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the still-floundering economy, Middle East peace prospects and religious freedom Friday.
Obama, in his first news conference since spring, ripped congressional Republicans for holding up legislation he said would create jobs and improve the economy. He repeated his proposals that would provide tax incentives for small businesses and funding for infrastructure projects.
The American people "didn't send us here to think about our jobs; they sent us here to think about their jobs," Obama said.
He urged Congress to pass a small-business jobs bill that has been held up by Republicans.
Asked about the administration's avoidance of calling the package a "stimulus" plan, Obama said, "there's no doubt that everything we've been trying to do is designed to stimulate growth and additional jobs in the economy. That's our entire agenda."
"So, I have no problem with people saying 'The president is trying to stimulate growth and hiring,'" Obama said. "Isn't that what I should be doing?"
Obama spoke animatedly about religious freedom when asked about the construction of a mosque in New York within blocks of where airplanes piloted by terrorists crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center nine years ago.
The country stands for equality for all men and women, including the ability of people "to practice their religion freely," Obama said.
"If you could build a church on a site, if you could build a synagogue on a site, if you can build a Hindu temple on a site, then you should be able to build a mosque on a site," he said.
Muslim-Americans are "putting their lives on the line for us" in the theater of war and are neighbors, co-workers and friends, Obama said.
"When we start acting as if their religion is somehow offensive, what are we saying to them?" Obama asked. "We don't differentiate between them and us. It's just us."
Obama praised President George W. Bush for stressing America's enemies were "the terrorists that perverted Islam" after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
Obama said he wants tax cuts for the middle class extended before discussion on whether tax cuts should be extended for the wealthy, a bone of contention for Republicans who want to extend tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration across the board.
The two parties agree that middle-class tax cuts must be extended, Obama said.
"Let's work on that," he said. "Let's do it."
Unclear was whether Obama would flat-out veto legislation that would include extending tax cuts for the wealthy. He said extending the cuts for the upper 2 percent of taxpayers would be a "bad idea" because it adds $700 billion to the deficit over the next 10 years.
But "we can have a further conversation" about the upper-income tax cuts, he said.
Obama said he understands how the American electorate may vent frustration at the polls in the midterm elections.
"They're not feeling good right now and I understand that," he said.
But if voters look at the policies his administration has put in place, even if the economy hasn't rebounded as much or as quickly as preferred, "then I think Democrats will do very well."
Concerning the Middle East peace talks, Obama said both Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met in Washington last week with a sense of purpose that "exceeded people's expectations."
The United States has worked to try to get Abbas and Netanyahu "to recognize the path for Israeli security and Palestinian sovereignty can only be met through negotiations."
Obama said the United States would stand behind the peace efforts, but ultimately "the parties must make the decisions themselves."