In Speech to Congress, Obama Outlines His Plans for Economic Recovery

Excerpts from President Obama's first major address to a Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009.Video: AP, Editor: Jacqueline Refo/
By Michael D. Shear and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

President Obama offered a grim portrait of America's plight in an address to a joint session of Congress last night, but he promised to lead an economic renewal that would lift the country out of its current crisis without bankrupting its future.

Striking an optimistic tone that has been absent from his speeches in recent weeks, the president said his stimulus plan, bank bailout proposal, housing programs and health-care overhaul would work in concert to turn around the nation's struggling economy. And while he bluntly described a country beset by historic economic challenges and continued threats abroad, he said the solution lies in directly confronting -- not ignoring -- those problems.

"The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation," he said. "The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and universities, in our fields and our factories, in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth."

In an address that largely shunned foreign policy to focus on the economy, Obama added: "Now is the time to jump-start job creation, restart lending, and invest in areas like energy, health care and education that will grow our economy, even as we make hard choices to bring our deficit down."

The 52-minute speech was greeted with sustained applause in the House chamber, which he had helped populate with more members of his party. Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike rose repeatedly to offer their approval of the president's rhetoric and his promise of recovery.

Obama received a standing ovation when he vowed that corporate chief executives would no longer travel on private jets at the same time they laid off thousands of workers. "Those days are over," he said. Lawmakers leapt to their feet again when he declared that "health-care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year."

While he largely avoided partisan rhetoric and did not directly point the finger of blame at his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama did describe an "era" of greed and short-term profit that he said the nation is now leaving behind, and he stressed that he had not created but rather "inherited" the $1 trillion deficit, along with what he called "a financial crisis and a costly recession."

The "day of reckoning has arrived," he declared, warning members of both parties in Congress that they will be forced to sacrifice "worthy priorities" as the crisis continues.

But he made it clear that he is not prepared to retreat from his own ambitious agenda. The president called on Congress to pass a market-based cap on carbon pollution. He vowed a renewed effort to provide health care to all Americans. And he called on Americans to attend at least one year of college or vocational training, pledging that by 2020, the country will again lead the world in the proportion of college graduates.

Obama did seek to temper expectations in his address, acknowledging that he cannot "solve every problem or address every issue." But he promised to deliver a budget tomorrow that will serve as a new "vision for America -- as a blueprint for our future."

He avoided in-depth discussion of his Iraq policy, saying only that in the coming days he will "announce a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war." That announcement could come as early as Friday, during a trip to North Carolina. Advisers said he is considering a plan to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq as soon as August 2010, three months later than promised during the campaign.

After weeks of persistent questions about whether he had grown too downcast and pessimistic in describing the economic crisis to the American people, White House officials said Obama was seeking to strike an appropriate balance between hope -- the mantra of his campaign -- and realism in an era of serious problems. He sought to juxtapose those ideas repeatedly, saying at one point: "While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, 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."

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