WASHINGTON – Standing before the nation on a “day of reckoning,” President Barack Obama summoned politicians and public alike Tuesday night to forge a path out of the worst economic disaster in a quarter-century by embracing shared sacrifice and costly new endeavours to improve health care, schools and the environment.
“The time to take charge of our future is here,” Obama declared in his first address to a joint session of Congress, watched by millions of worried Americans on television and the Internet.
Adding words of reassurance, he said, “Tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”
Obama had to wade his way into a chamber packed with lawmakers eager to welcome the nation’s first black president into a Capitol built by slaves.
The House gallery included a special section hosted by first lady Michelle Obama, where guests served as living symbols of the president’s goals.
Cramming the floor was virtually the entire leadership of the federal government, including Supreme Court justices, led by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, back on the bench only this week after cancer surgery, and all but one Cabinet member, held away in case disaster struck. Obama’s 52-minute speech was interrupted 61 times by applause.
To deal with the current economic crisis, deepening each day, the president said more money would be needed to rescue troubled banks beyond the $700 billion already committed last year. He said he knows that bailout billions for banks are unpopular – “I promise you, I get it,” he said – but he also insisted it was the only way to get credit moving again to households and businesses, the lifeblood of the American economy.
Along with aid for banks, he also called on Congress to move quickly on legislation to overhaul regulations on the nation’s financial markets.
“I ask this Congress to join me in doing whatever proves necessary,” Obama said. “Because we cannot consign our nation to an open-ended recession.”
With U.S. automakers struggling for survival, Obama also said he would allow neither their demise nor “their own bad practices” to be rewarded. “I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it,” he said.
Thinking longer-term, Obama said in a speech lacking many specifics that both political parties must give up favoured programs while uniting behind his campaign promises to help the millions without health insurance, build better schools and move the nation to more-efficient fuel use. He skipped the traditional litany of new programs common in such speeches but spoke on broad generalities about goals and themes that formed the backbone of his presidential campaign.
Just five weeks after his inauguration, Obama addressed an ebullient Democratic congressional majority and an embattled but reinvigorated GOP minority as well as anxious viewers at home. Despite the nation’s economic worries and the failure so far of his effort to draw support for his plans from more than a handful of Republican lawmakers, Obama enjoys strong approval ratings across the nation.
Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s young, charismatic governor who is considered a potential 2012 presidential candidate, was chosen to deliver the televised GOP response. He exhorted fellow Republicans to be Obama’s “strongest partners” when they agree with him. But he signalled that won’t happen much, calling the $787 billion stimulus package “irresponsible.”
“The way to lead is not to raise taxes and put more money and power in hands of Washington politicians,” Jindal said. “Who among us would ask our children for a loan, so we could spend money we do not have, on things we do not need?”
Still, mindful of the public’s optimism about Obama’s leadership, Jindal, as well as other Republicans, took care to focus criticism primarily on Congress’ Democratic leaders, not on the president.
Pre-speech, Wall Street was in a better mood than it had been in for days: Stocks were up after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said the recession might end this year.
But Obama spoke as bad economic news continued to pile up, felt all too keenly in U.S. homes and businesses. Some 3.6 million jobs have disappeared in the recession that ranks as the biggest job destroyer in the post-World War II period. Americans have lost trillions of dollars in retirement, college and savings accounts, with the stock market falling nearly half from its peak of 16 months ago.
New polls – some with Obama’s public support rising and others with it dropping – show that the political climate can be as precarious as the economic one. So Obama reached for both candor and can-do, blending the kind of grim honesty that has become his trademark since taking office with a greater emphasis on optimism.
“The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation,” he said.
The central argument of his speech was that his still-unfolding economic revival plan has room for – even demands – a broader agenda. This is the big chore of his young presidency, and Obama’s hope was that he can begin to persuade the country that the longer-term items on his presidential agenda are as important to the nation’s economic well-being as unchoking credit and turning around unemployment numbers.
“The only way this century will be another American century is if we confront at last the price of our dependence on oil and the high cost of health care, the schools that aren’t preparing our children and the mountain of debt they stand to inherit,” Obama said.
He urged lawmakers to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change by creating a cap-and-trade system of limits and pollution allowances. And he said the budget he is sending to Congress on Thursday will call for $15 billion a year in federal spending to spur development of environmentally friendly but so far cost-ineffective energy sources such as wind and solar, biofuels, clean coal and more fuel-efficient vehicles.
He said his budget request also will create new incentives for teacher performance and support for innovative education programs. He asked every American to commit to completing a year or more of higher education or career training.
In contrast to many State of the Union addresses by George W. Bush, Obama did not emphasize foreign policy. He touched on his intention to chart new strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan and to forge a new image for the U.S. around the world even as he keeps up the fight against terrorism.
With the economy dominant, Obama said the mess was one he inherited. “We have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity, where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter or the next election,” he said.
Nonetheless, he aimed to show he is tackling the situation with both urgency and strict oversight for how the staggering sums are being spent. The massive stimulus plan, an overhaul of the financial sector bailout, and a $275 billion rescue for struggling homeowners are already in place, and more is likely on the way, Obama said.
Even as Washington pours money into the economic recovery, Obama said the budget deficit, at $1.3 trillion and ballooning, must be brought under control.
He promised he would slash it by half by the end of his term in 2013, mostly by ending U.S. combat in Iraq and eliminating some of Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy. He said his budget officials have identified a total of $2 trillion in savings over the next 10 years, also including ending education programs “that don’t work” and payments to large agribusinesses “that don’t need them,” eliminating wasteful no-bid contracts in Iraq and spending on weapons systems no longer needed in the post-Cold War era, and rooting out waste in Medicare.
“Everyone in this chamber, Democrats and Republicans, will have to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars,” he said. “And that includes me.”
He touted his decision to end the practice of leaving Iraq and Afghanistan war spending out of the main budget. “For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price,” Obama said.