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In Speech to Congress, Obama Rolls the Dice

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By David S. Broder
Thursday, February 26, 2009

The size of the gambles that President Obama is taking every day is simply staggering. What came through in his speech to a joint session of Congress and a national television audience Tuesday night was a dramatic reminder of the unbelievable stakes he has placed on the table in his first month in office, putting at risk the future well-being of the country and the Democratic Party's control of Washington.

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It was also, and even more significantly, a measure of the degree to which he has taken personal responsibility for delivering on one of the most ambitious agendas any newly inaugurated president has ever announced.

Most politicians, facing an economic crisis as deep as this one -- the threatened collapse of the job market and manufacturing, retail and credit systems, along with the staggering, unprecedented costs of the attempted rescue efforts -- would happily postpone tackling anything else.

But not Obama.

Instead, no sooner had he finished describing his plans for spurring an economic recovery and shoring up the crippled automotive and banking industries than he was off to the races, outlining his ambitions for overhauling energy, health care and education policy.

The House chamber was filled with veteran legislators who have spent decades wrestling with those issues. They know how maddeningly difficult it has been to cobble together a coalition large enough to pass a significant education, health care or energy bill.

And here stood Obama, challenging them to do all three, at a time when trillions of borrowed dollars already have been committed to short-term economic rescue schemes and when new taxes risk stunting any recovery.

Is he naive? Does he not understand the political challenge he is inviting?

His response to those doubters on both sides of the aisle who think that Obama is trying to do too much was to assert that passivity is not an option. "And I refuse to let that happen."

The White House signaled before the speech that Obama planned to strike a more upbeat note than he had in his recent campaigning for the stimulus bill. He did that at the top of the speech, saying, "We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before."

That is presidential boilerplate, the kind of thing White House speechwriters deliver whenever things look bleak and you have to rally the troops.

But Obama was not content to leave it at that. Buoyed for now by last year's victories over Hillary Clinton and John McCain, by his soaring approval rating and by a Republican opposition whose incoherence was demonstrated by the reply from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Obama is clearly of a mind to strike while the iron is hot.


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