Obama Emphasizes Reform, Offers Hope Amid Economic Crisis

Excerpts from President Obama's first major address to a Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009.Video: AP, Editor: Jacqueline Refo/washingtonpost.com
By Ben Pershing
Tuesday, February 24, 2009; 6:26 PM

Five weeks into an administration already marked by dramatic highs and lows, President Obama sounded a note of hope at a time of crisis tonight, delivering an address to a joint session of Congress heavily focused on the ailing economy and how to fix it.

Offering the prospect of a brighter future after weeks of grim rhetoric, Obama sought to put a human face on complex policy proposals. He linked his banking rescue plan to the ability of a "young family" to "finally buy a home." And he acknowledged populist anger at the prospect of more Wall Street bailouts, vowing to crack down on CEO bonuses and conduct tough oversight of the hundreds of billions of dollars already pledged to address the economic crisis.

Though he began by recognizing that "the impact of this recession is real, and it is everywhere," Obama said he sees light at the end of the tunnel, despite rising unemployment, a cratering stock market, teetering banks and an auto industry gasping for breath.

"But 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," Obama said.

Though he was optimistic, Obama mostly avoided flights of lofty rhetoric. He offered specific, sometimes wonkish explanations of how credit markets work, how the budget should be reformed and how the country can renew its commitment to renewable energy.

Obama demanded quick action on several fronts. On finance, he asked Congress to move with dispatch to "reform our outdated regulatory system." On health care, he said "reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year." And on education, Obama said his budget would speed the pace of reform and "expand our commitment to charter schools."

He pledged more honesty and transparency in the budget process, saying that "No longer will we hide" the full cost of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama vowed to "be vigilant in upholding the values our troops defend" and said of detainees, "I can stand here and say without exception or equivocation that the United States does not torture."

Obama's speech, with all the trappings of a State of the Union address, comes a day after a bipartisan "fiscal responsibility summit" at the White House and two days before the presentation of his first budget.

Obama fleshed out the details of an economic strategy that some critics -- and the markets -- have tarred as too short on specifics to inspire confidence. A week after the president signed a $787 billion economic stimulus package, his administration is moving on separate fronts to shore up the housing market by stemming foreclosures and bolster the banking industry, possibly by purchasing shares in the banking industry.

After days of mostly negative news, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke offered a glimmer of optimism today by testifying that 2010 could be a "year of recovery." The stock markets rallied on delivery of that prognosis, and Obama sought tonight to strike a similarly upbeat tone.

"The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation. The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach," Obama said.

"What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more."

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