In Georgetown Speech, Obama Offers Cautious Optimism

President Obama said in a major speech on the economy Tuesday that the United States faced a long slog in finding its way out of the economic and financial tumult battering the country but repeated that he is seeing signs of hope. Video by AP
By Michael D. Shear and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 14, 2009; 12:36 PM

President Obama today laid out a vision for a new era of U.S. economic prosperity and called on the nation to "get serious" about reforming entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security -- reform that he said starts with overhauling the American health care system.

"Make no mistake: health care reform is entitlement reform," Obama said in a speech at Georgetown University in Washington. "That's one of the reasons why I firmly believe we need to get health care reform done this year." This will bring down costs "across the system, including in Medicare and Medicaid," he said.

Linking health care to broader economic problems, Obama said, "The key to dealing with our deficit and debt is to get a handle on out-of-control health care costs -- not to stand idly by as the economy goes into free fall."

But efforts to tackle this thorny problem and address other basic weaknesses in the U.S. economy are hampered by "a fundamental weakness in our political system," Obama said. He pointed to what he said was a proclivity in Washington to postpone hard decisions.

"There's been a tendency to score political points instead of rolling up sleeves to solve real problems," Obama said. "There is also an impatience that characterizes this town -- an attention span that has only grown shorter with the 24-hour news cycle and insists on instant gratification in the form of immediate results or higher poll numbers. When a crisis hits, there's all too often a lurch from shock to trance, with everyone responding to the tempest of the moment . . . instead of confronting the major challenges that will shape our future in a sustained and focused way."

Obama warned, "This can't be one of those times. The challenges are too great. The stakes are too high. I know how difficult it is for members of Congress in both parties to grapple with some of the big decisions we face right now. . . . But we have been called to govern in extraordinary times, and that requires an extraordinary sense of responsibility."

In his speech, Obama generally offered an optimistic assessment of efforts to revive the economy but warned that tough times are still ahead as the nation rebuilds its financial system.

Aides to the president billed the speech as a major effort to speak broadly about the state of the recovery, but it offered no new policies.

Speaking at the nation's oldest Catholic and Jesuit university, Obama referred repeatedly to a parable from the Sermon on the Mount to describe the challenge that confronts Americans as they recover from the recession. He compared the recovery to the story of two men, one of whom builds his house on sand, the other on rock.

"We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand," Obama said. "We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity -- a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest, where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad."

In the speech, Obama continued what has become a series of moderately hopeful comments about the success of a variety of recovery efforts, saying, "Taken together, these actions are starting to generate signs of economic progress."

But he also sounded more than a note of caution.

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