WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama offered a grim portrait of America’s plight in an address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday 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 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.”
Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike rose repeatedly to offer their approval of the president’s rhetoric and his promise of recovery.
The president received standing ovations when he vowed that CEOs 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 the president 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 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 Thursday that will serve as a new “vision for America – as a blueprint for our future.”
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 young 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,” Obama said, quoting her. “That’s what she said. We are not quitters.”
Obama’s speech to Congress 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.