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.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
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.

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.

"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.

"The tone fit the times, both in terms of describing the severity of the problems but also providing a call to action for the American people and a way out of this mess," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "This was not a small-bore speech. This was a call for bold action in big areas: heathcare, energy policy, and education. That's what the country was waiting to hear."

Republicans, who sat silent when Democrats cheered Obama's reference to President Bush's tax cuts as "an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy," rose to applaud the president's upbeat message on the economy.

"President Obama used the language of hope that got him elected. That's good stuff and that's presidential," said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R) of Texas, who underscored those lines in his copy of Obama's address.

"I love President George W. Bush," he continued. "He's smarter than people gave him credit for, but he got talked into going out and being Chicken Little and claiming the financial sky was falling, and that alone disrupted confidence. The workers, the people who make loans need to hear that we've got some tough times going on but we're equal to the task."

"The speech had a sense of hope, a sense of optimism [that] we can do it and we will do it," said Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, a veteran of civil rights struggles.

"We're not quitters," he said, referring to a line in a letter to Obama from student Ty-Sheoma Bethea from a crumbling school the president visited in Dillon, S.C. (She sat in the gallery next to first lady Michelle Obama during the address.)

On the policy front, Republicans applauded calls to make long-term investments in energy, healthcare, and education. But the issue of expanding government's role in the economy, especially the prospect of "nationalizing" America's biggest banks, was top of mind for many in the minority party.

"Republicans believe the road back to prosperity is paved with greater personal freedom, not bigger government, and that in this moment of economic hardship, we should be more vigilant about spending taxpayer dollars, not less," said Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell in a statement after the president's address.

In his address, Obama tried to reframe the debate. Instead of talking about "nationalizing" tottering banks or socializing the economy, Obama spoke of the need for government to create the conditions for economic revival.

In previous times of economic upheaval, "government didn't supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise," he said.

In response, Republicans said the federal government is at risk of taking on too big a role in the private economy, at the expense of other priorities.

"He wants to nationalize the banks, which is all the way to the left," said Rep. Trent Franks (R) of Arizona.

He also noted that the president didn't address danger from "jihadist terrorism."

"For the commander in chief to leave out the first purpose of government, to protect its citizens against one of the most eminent threats facing us in the world, was a pretty serious hole in his speech," Representative Franks said.

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