Editorial -- President Obama's Address to Congress

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
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

FACING AN economic crisis, a banking crisis, a housing crisis and an auto industry crisis, President Obama used the opportunity of his address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night to load his plate with even more. Mr. Obama said he would press ahead with plans to overhaul the nation's health-care system, bolster education and lead the transition to new forms of energy -- all while curing cancer and getting the deficit under control.

We understand the president's instinct not to let short-term demands obscure the need to meet the country's long-term challenges. His priorities for fundamental reform, the causes that animated his campaign, are admirable ones. Yet we cannot help wondering: Isn't the most critical task to ensure a swift and effective response to the stomach-churning downturn? Does a new, understaffed administration have the capacity to try so much so fast? And does the political system have the bandwidth to accommodate all that Mr. Obama is asking from it?

"The recovery plan and the financial stability plan are the immediate steps we're taking to revive our economy in the short-term," Mr. Obama said. "But the only way to fully restore America's economic strength is to make the long-term investments that will lead to new jobs, new industries and a renewed ability to compete with the rest of the world. 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."

Mr. Obama said the budget he will submit tomorrow will reflect "the stark reality of what we've inherited -- a trillion-dollar deficit, a financial crisis and a costly recession," and that "worthy priorities" will have to be sacrificed. But his message was more about what could be done than what would have to be left out. Mr. Obama said his administration has "already identified two trillion dollars in savings over the next decade," but about half of that involves his long-promised rollback of tax cuts from the previous administration.

In this economic emergency, the most important goal for Mr. Obama is one he laid out near the beginning of his speech: "We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before." As he acknowledged last night, to enable that recovery the administration may well need to go back to Congress to seek more money for ailing banks. Given the public mood and lawmakers who feel burned by the handling of the first $350 billion infusion, that will be a hard enough lift in and of itself. As Mr. Obama also noted, the American public is understandably skeptical about whether the money Washington has already committed to spend will be wasted. Even the political capital of the popular Mr. Obama is not unlimited. We hope he does not spread it so broadly that he is left without the means to extinguish the fires raging now.

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