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."
Like his predecessors, Obama cited the stories of guests invited to the speech by the White House to reflect "the spirit of the people who sent us here." One of those, a South Carolina high school student named Ty'Sheoma Bethea, sought help for her crumbling school by writing a letter to members of Congress, Obama said. "We are not quitters," he said, quoting her letter. "That's what she said. We are not quitters."
Obama's speech was his first major address since he was inaugurated five weeks ago, as well as his first opportunity to offer a coherent narrative for the early weeks of his presidency, during which the economy has shown no signs of stabilizing.
Last week, former president Bill Clinton chided Obama for not offering the kind of uplifting rhetoric that was a staple of his campaign.
"I like trying to educate the American people about the dimensions and scope of this economic crisis," Clinton said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "I just would like him to end by saying that he is hopeful and completely convinced we're going to come through this."
That has been difficult amid signs that the economic meltdown that began in late September has only deepened and broadened.
The nation's biggest banks are on the verge of collapsing without government investment that could lead to a nationalization of the industry. Foreclosures continue to chase Americans from their homes in record numbers, and the auto industry is failing despite the infusion of billions from the federal Treasury.
Under pressure to explain the necessity of a bank bailout program that many see as a reward for Wall Street, Obama made a detailed case for continuing to pour government money into the financial sector.
"There will be no real recovery unless we clean up the credit crisis that has severely weakened our financial system," he said.
The president sought to calm jittery investors by assuring that bank deposits are safe. But, he said, the assistance to the banking industry is not an abstract idea with distant consequences, but rather an immediate concern for average citizens.
"If we do not restart lending in this country, our recovery will be choked off before it even begins," he said. "You see, the flow of credit is the lifeblood of our economy. . . . When there is no lending, families can't afford to buy homes or cars. So businesses are forced to make layoffs. Our economy suffers even more, and credit dries up even further."
Advisers have warned that Obama will make "hard choices" in his first budget blueprint, which he is set to deliver tomorrow. The president has pledged to cut the nation's deficit in half by the end of 2012, allowing tax cuts for the wealthy to expire and reducing war spending as the U.S. military draws down troops from Iraq over the next year and a half.
That puts him on a collision course with many Republican lawmakers, who have already begun to question the wisdom of Obama's proposed spending cuts and tax increases.
Even before Obama began speaking, the GOP made clear its unwillingness to bend to the president's will. In excerpts from his official Republican response, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal derided Obama's legislative agenda as full of big-government ideas that will not succeed in repairing the nation's economy.
"What it will do is grow the government, increase our taxes down the line and saddle future generations with debt," said Jindal, who is running for reelection and is considered a potential contender for the presidency in 2012. "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? That is precisely what the Democrats in Congress just did. It's irresponsible."