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Obama Cites Grim Economy at Start, as Predecessors Have

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President-elect Barack Obama warned of dire and lasting consequences if Congress doesn't pump unprecedented dollars into the economy, making an urgent pitch Thursday for his mammoth spending proposal in his first speech since his election. Video by AP

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By Michael D. Shear and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 9, 2009

President-elect Barack Obama warned yesterday that the nation is sliding into the deepest economic crisis since World War II and urged Congress to pass a stimulus package quickly or risk an entire generation of Americans losing any hope of prosperity.

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In his first major speech since Election Day, Obama participated in an early version of a presidential ritual: preparing the country for an eventual economic recovery by painting an especially grim picture of the nation's fiscal standing at the start.

"For every day we wait or point fingers or drag our feet, more Americans will lose their jobs. More families will lose their savings. More dreams will be deferred and denied," he told an audience at George Mason University in Fairfax County. "And our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse."

For Obama, the address was the laying down of a political marker, said Andrew G. Biggs, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

"He wants to make clear that coming into his administration that the problems he faces are problems that he inherited," Biggs said. "He does not want to be judged by where the economy ends up in a couple of years, but by from where he started."

In tone and manner, Obama's speech was eerily reminiscent of the early declarations from the past four presidents, who took office warning of economic perils that lay just around the corner.

During his 1981 inaugural address, Ronald Reagan said the United States was "confronted with an economic affliction of great proportions." Eight years later, George H.W. Bush cautioned at his inauguration that "we have a deficit to bring down. We have more will than wallet."

Bill Clinton opened his presidency in 1993 by announcing that the country was "weakened by business failures, stagnant wages, increasing inequality and deep divisions among our people."

And in an early radio addresses in 2001, George W. Bush said that "the stock market is causing worries, high energy prices are straining family budgets, and some workers and small-business people have been directly affected by layoffs and slowing retail sales."

Each of the speeches served to tamp down Americans' expectations about their financial futures, building in ample room for improvement as the new chief executive assumed responsibility for the nation's economic health.

It would be difficult to sugarcoat the current economic dangers on the horizon, and Obama made no attempt to do so, citing a 28-year low in manufacturing, an unemployment rate that could reach double digits and 2 million lost jobs.

"We start 2009 in the midst of a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetime -- a crisis that has only deepened over the last few weeks," he said.


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