WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama promised a nation
shuddering in economic crisis Tuesday night that he would lead it
from a dire "day of reckoning" to a brighter future, summoning
politicians and public alike to shoulder responsibility for hard
choices and shared sacrifice.
"The time to take charge of our future is here," Obama
declared, delivering his first address to a joint session of
Offering words of reassurance to an anxious nation, he declared,
"Tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we
will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger
"We are a nation that has seen promise and peril," he said.
"Now we must be that nation again."
Cheered robustly as he entered the House chamber, Obama grinned,
shook hands and kissed lawmakers and stopped for a lengthy embrace
with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, back on the bench
only this week after surgery for pancreatic cancer.
To deal with the current crisis, deepening each day, the
president said more money will 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 that 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quickly on legislation to overhaul outdated regulations on the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."
Thinking longer-term, Obama said in a speech lacking many
specifics and devoid of initiatives that both political parties
must give up favored programs while uniting behind his campaign
promises to build better schools, expand health care coverage and
move the nation to "greener" fuel use.
Just five weeks after his inauguration, Obama addressed an
ebullient Democratic congressional majority and an embattled but
reinvigorated GOP minority as well as millions of anxious viewers.
Despite the nation's economic worries and the lack of support for
his plans from all but a few Republican lawmakers, Obama enjoys
strong approval ratings across the nation.
Louisiana's young, charismatic governor, Bobby Jindal,
delivering the televised GOP response, exhorted fellow Republicans
to be Obama's "strongest partners" when they agree with him. But
he signaled that won't happen much, calling Democrats in Congress
"irresponsible" for passing the $787 billion stimulus package
that Republicans have criticized as excessive and wasteful.
"The way to lead is not to raise taxes and put more money and
power in hands of Washington politicians," Jindal said, according
to excerpts of his remarks released by the Republican Party. "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?"
Jindal is considered a likely presidential contender in 2012.
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 so far in the deepening recession, which now 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.
And new polls - some with his public support rising and others
with it dropping - show that the political climate can be as
precarious as the economic one. Aware that his and his party's
fortunes will suffer if he cannot right the economic picture, Obama
sought to blend 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 - and even demands -
simultaneous action on a broad, expensive agenda including helping
the millions without health insurance, improving education and
switching the U.S. to greater dependence on alternative energy
sources. This is the big lift of his young presidency: bringing the
public behind what are sure to be enormous outlays on contentious
His hope was to begin to persuade the country that those
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. "That is our responsibility."
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, especially for industries such as
utilities with coal burning power plants. 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.
New in office, he wasn't charged with producing a formal State
of the Union status report. But for all intents and purposes,
that's what it was: a night for the president to sketch out his
priorities in a setting unmatched the rest of the year.
It took nearly 15 minutes for him to make his way through a
House chamber packed with lawmakers eager to welcome the nation's
first black president into a Capitol built by slaves. The gallery
included a special section hosted by first lady Michelle Obama in
which guests were selected to serve as living symbols of the
president's goals. Cramming the floor was virtually the entire
leadership of the federal government, including Supreme Court
justices and all but one Cabinet member, held away in case disaster
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.
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.
He aimed to show he was 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 separate $700 billion
bailout for the financial sector, and a $275 billion rescue for
struggling homeowners are already in place, and more is on the way,
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,"
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)