WASHINGTON — Standing before a nation on an economic precipice, President Barack Obama aimed to balance candor with can-do Tuesday night in his first address to a joint session of Congress. Millions more anxious Americans were tuning in on TV.
In the speech, which aired after the Banner’s press deadline, Obama planned to argue that his still-unfolding economic revival plan has room for — even demands — a broader agenda including dramatic increases in health care coverage and wiser, “greener” fuel use. Excerpts of Obama’s speech released Thursday afternoon showed a president prepared to address an ebullient Democratic congressional majority and an embattled but reinvigorated GOP minority, as well as worried viewers at home.
“But while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken,” Obama’s remarks read, “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.
“The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation,” the speech continued. “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. Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure. 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.”
Just five weeks after his inauguration, Obama wasn’t charged with producing a formal State of the Union status report. But for all intents and purposes, that’s what the speech was to provide: a chance for the president to sketch out his priorities in a setting unmatched the rest of the year.
Pre-speech, the White House blitzed the airwaves, talking up Obama’s plans but tamping down any expectations of high-flying rhetoric, splashy headlines or fancy new initiatives.
Wall Street was in a better mood than it had been in for days: Stocks were up after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said the recession might end this year.
Comments on Obama’s address came in early from Republicans, many hours before he had uttered a word.
“House Republicans stand united in willingness to work with this president to try and tackle the very tough economic situation that is facing our families, to try and make some of the tough decisions together,” said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia.
But Republicans would stick to their principles, Cantor said: “One is that Washington shouldn’t be spending money that we don’t have. And two, we shouldn’t be raising taxes on businesses and families that can’t afford to pay them.”
The young, charismatic governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, was chosen to deliver the televised GOP response to the Democratic president. Considered a likely presidential contender in 2012, Jindal has been an outspoken critic of what many Republicans call the wasteful spending in Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package, even raising the possibility of rejecting some of the money designated for his state. But he also has praised Obama for reaching out to his party.
In contrast to many State of the Union addresses delivered by George W. Bush, Obama was not expected to emphasize foreign policy.
He planned to touch on his intention to chart new strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan and to forge a new image for the U.S. around the world even as he keeps up the fight against terrorism.
But with the economy in a recession that already has lasted longer than any other in a quarter-century, that was to be the dominant topic.
The president aimed to drive home several points:
• He inherited the mess, and a quick turnaround is unlikely. Not only did the recession emerge on Bush’s watch, the Bush approach wasn’t the right one.
• He’s tackling the situation on multiple fronts. Already done: the massive stimulus plan, an overhaul of the separate $700 billion bailout for the financial sector, and a $275 billion rescue for struggling homeowners. On the way: decisions about limping U.S. automakers, a move to broadly rewrite financial industry regulations and perhaps more money aimed at propping up banks.
• Thinking short-term won’t do the trick. Focusing even amid the crisis on longer-term goals such as helping the millions without health insurance and switching the U.S. to greater dependence on alternative energy sources is crucial to the nation’s economic well-being.
Also crucial is bringing down the estimated $1.3 trillion budget deficit that is ballooning as Washington pours money into the economic recovery. Obama was expected to declare that the budget request he sends to Congress on Thursday will slash the deficit by at least half by the end of his term in 2013, in large part by ending U.S. combat in Iraq and eliminating some of Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy.
He was also expected to talk of a continuing need to reach across ideological boundaries, and for him to connect with the everyday Americans dealing with hard times.
Obama hoped to hit just the right note with this address: grim enough to be honest, but optimistic enough to be inspiring.
New polls showed that the political climate can be as precarious as the economic one
While a new Washington Post-ABC News survey found that 68 percent of the public approves of Obama’s job performance, a Gallup poll also out Tuesday showed his approval rating falling to 59 percent.