Obama Assures Nation: ‘We Will Rebuild’

Obama Assures Nation: ‘We Will Rebuild’ Doug Mills/The New York Times President Obama gave a speech to Congress on Tuesday night. WASHINGTON — President Obama urged the nation on Tuesday to see 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,” Mr. Obama 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 gregarious applause, particularly from Democrats who hold a strong majority. Yet even Republicans leaned in close to Mr. Obama as he passed by them in the narrow aisle and made his way to the speaker’s dais at the front of the room. 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 backwards, 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. Mr. Obama, following through on a campaign pledge, challenged Congress to pass a bill to cap greenhouse gas emissions that are heating the planet and use $15 billion a year of the revenues from the program to pay for renewable sources of energy. He said that America was 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 only that the budget he will release on Thursday will make a down payment on the goal of “quality, affordable health care for every American.” On the campaign trail, he committed himself to a number of goals, including establishing a new public insurance program to compete with private insurers, requiring employers to contribute to the cost of coverage for their employees or to the cost of the public plan and requiring that all children have coverage. Mr. Obama said he would cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term, telling his audience for the first time that his administration has “already identified two 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. In his litany of proposals, Mr. Obama called for creating tax-free universal savings accounts for all Americans, a nod to Republicans to create some kind of 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,” Mr. Obama 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. But even though Americans have been seeing a lot of Mr. Obama in the first 36 days of his presidency, the speech on Tuesday evening gave him an opportunity to command the stage in a way he has not yet done and served as an early test of whether he will be able to persuade Republicans to support any pieces of his agenda. 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 were 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,” Mr. Jindal said in his prepared speech. “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 to come. At a time of crisis, he said, “we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment.” Mr. Obama sought to explain the program he announced last week to help some homeowners prevent foreclosure. He asked for understanding from Americans who have made their payments on time and who regard the bailout plan as an unfair reward to those who lived beyond their means. The president urged Americans to consider refinancing their homes, which he said could save nearly $2,000 on their mortgage. On health care, Mr. Obama said, “Let there be no doubt: health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year.” The president waited until the last moments of his speech to address America’s relations with the world, and when he did, he struck broad themes while eschewing specific policy directives. He pledged to end the war in Iraq and to bring home troops — although he did not say how, or how soon. He pledged to defeat Al Qaeda and to combat extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, although, again, he did not say how, leaving the details to the pending reviews under way on both Iraq and Afghanistan policy. Instead, Mr. Obama sought to convey a new American administration that will try to lead by example. “As we stand at this crossroads of history, the eyes of all people in all nations are once again upon us — watching to see what we do with this moment; waiting for us to lead,” he said. With Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Speaker Nancy Pelosi sitting behind him, Mr. Obama looked out across a sea of senators, representatives, Supreme Court justices and high-ranking military officials. The cabinet members who have been confirmed were also on hand, except for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who was designated to stay away to uphold government continuity in case of an emergency. The crowd was significantly smaller — and more politically divided — than most of the audiences Mr. Obama addressed in the major junctures of his candidacy and since winning election. But the White House, like others before it, sought to personalize the policy proposals by introducing the stories of real people into the speech and inviting 22 guests to sit in the balcony with First Lady Michelle Obama. “I know that we haven’t agreed on every issue thus far, and there are surely times in the future when we will part ways,” Mr. Obama said. “But I also know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed. That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months.”

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