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Citing 'crisis,' Obama sketches recovery plan, lauds the American character

His national address Tuesday was part acknowledgment of the grave economic challenges, part pep talk.

By Linda Feldmann and Gail Russell ChaddockStaff writers / February 25, 2009

President Obama struck a note that was both sober and hopeful during his address to Congress Tuesday in Washington. Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined in one of many moments of applause.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Washington

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama spoke of "the fierce urgency of now." In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama conveyed the sense, if not with those exact words, that America's ills require urgent and immediate action – and that the nation is up to the task.

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"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," Mr. Obama declared Tuesday night.

The president did not sugar-coat the challenges ahead, with the stock market at a 12-year low, the auto industry on the brink of collapse, and millions of Americans in danger of home foreclosure. He used the word "crisis" 11 times in a 52-minute speech.

But he also answered the call for optimism with regular expressions of confidence in the nation, calling Americans "the hardest-working people on Earth."

"We are not quitters," he said, quoting from a letter written by a South Carolina schoolgirl.

Obama also expanded on the theme of responsibility from his inaugural address, in which he called on Americans "to set aside childish things."

"The fact is our economy did not fall into decline overnight," he said Tuesday.

Obama ticked through a list of policy areas in which the nation – the government and the people – had failed to meet its responsibilities, starting with energy, education, and healthcare.

"Well, that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here," Obama said.

In just 36 days in office, Obama has already signed into law the largest economic stimulus package in history and outlined plans to ease the banking and home mortgage crises. His speech made clear that those measures are just the beginning. He intends to press ahead with comprehensive healthcare reform, calling it the best way to strengthen Medicare.

Former Clinton White House official William Galston calls the speech "not only ambitious, but straightforwardly liberal," noting that the president spoke little about the private and voluntary sectors, or even state and local government.

"I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves; that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity," Obama said.

One element of Obama's young presidency that has failed so far is his effort to garner broad bipartisan support for his initiatives. But at certain moments during his State-of-the-Union-esque speech, such as those addressing healthcare and education, members from both sides of the aisle did stand and applaud.

Some lawmakers may have disagreed with the details – tax policy, spending and stimulus plans – but Obama's call to "summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit" won praise on both sides of the aisle.

With distress signals in so many aspects of American life, the president had to strike the right balance of sobriety and resolve that the economy could get back on track. On this night, both Republicans and Democrats gave the president high marks for getting the tone right.