EVAN VUCCI / AP Enlarge
STEPHEN CROWLEY / NYT Enlarge
WASHINGTON President Obama urged the nation last night to view the economic crisis as reason to raise its ambitions, calling for expensive new efforts to address energy, health care, and education programs even as he warned that more money might be needed to bail out banks.
In his first address to a joint session of Congress, Mr. Obama mixed an acknowledgment of the depth of the economic problems with a Reaganesque exhortation to American resilience and an expansive agenda with a pledge to begin paring down a soaring budget deficit.
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, he said. We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.
He was greeted in the House of Representatives chamber with generous applause, particularly from Democrats who hold a majority. Yet even Republicans leaned in close to Mr. Obama as he made his way to the speaker s dais at the front of the room.
Joining First Lady Michelle Obama for the speech were a couple of governors one of them Ohio s Ted Strickland members of the military, several business leaders, and students.
Mr. Obama said he came to the Capitol not only to address members of the House and Senate who were seated before him, but also to speak frankly and directly to the men and women who sent us here.
If we re honest with ourselves, we ll admit that for too long, we have not always met these responsibilities as a government or as a people, Mr. Obama said. I say this not to lay blame or look backward, but because it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we ll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament.
A failure to confront the nation s dependence on foreign oil, deal with the rising cost of health care, or find a solution to the decline of American schools contributed to the place the country finds itself in, Mr. Obama said.
He renewed his call for investments in all areas, particularly finding a way to create energy resources that do not rely on foreign sources of oil.
He said that America is falling behind China, Germany, Japan, and other nations in production and use of clean energy, but challenged American entrepreneurs to develop technology to make the United States a global leader in energy efficiency.
He was vague about how he intends to make health care more affordable and accessible, saying the budget he will release tomorrow will make a down payment on the goal of quality, affordable health care for every American.
The President said he would cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term, saying for the first time that his administration has already identified 2 trillion dollars in savings over the next decade.
In an interview, an administration official said those savings reflected reduced spending on the war in Iraq and higher revenues from letting the Bush administration s tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans lapse after 2010.
Among his proposals, Mr. Obama called for creating tax-free universal savings accounts for all Americans, a nod to Republicans to create investment vehicles as they consider overhauling the Social Security program.
My budget does not attempt to solve every problem or address every issue. It reflects the stark reality of what we ve inherited: a trillion-dollar budget deficit, a financial crisis, and a costly recession, he said.
Given these realities, everyone in this chamber Democrats and Republicans will have to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars. And that includes me.
While it was the most high-profile presidential address since the inauguration, it was hardly the first time Mr. Obama has presented an outline for what he wants his administration to accomplish.
Other presidents have used their first address to Congress to lay out comprehensive plans for the first time, but Mr. Obama has already addressed the nation from the East Room and held a prime-time press conference in addition to visiting Canada and six American states in trips intended to sell his economic message.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate turned to a rising voice outside of Washington to deliver the party s response to the presidential address.
In prepared remarks, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said Republicans are also focused on trying to rebuild the economy, but he criticized Democrats for turning to government programs and spending to deal with the nation s challenges.
Democratic leaders say their legislation will grow the economy, he said. What it will do is grow the government, increase our taxes down the line, and saddle future generations with debt. Who among us would ask our children for a loan so we could spend money we do not have, on things we do not need? That is precisely what the Democrats in Congress just did. It s irresponsible.
Mr. Obama acknowledged the anger felt by many Americans over the bailouts of banks, the automobile companies, and homeowners who are in over their heads.
But he made a case that all those steps were necessary, not to help the institutions or people receiving taxpayer money, but to avert deeper economic problems that would afflict everyone for years.