President Barack Obama, in his first speech to a joint session of Congress, promised Americans fearful about the deepening economic crisis that he would lead the country from its dire "day of reckoning" to a brighter future.
Addressing a packed chamber of lawmakers and a nationwide television audience Tuesday night, Obama balanced a somber assessment of the United States' economic woes with a revival of the words of hope that were the trademark of his presidential campaign.
"The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation," Obama declared. "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."
To deal with the current crisis, deepening each day, Obama said more money will be needed to rescue troubled banks beyond the $700 billion already committed last year. He said he knows that bank bailouts are unpopular, but insisted that was the only way to get credit moving again to households and businesses, the lifeblood of the American economy.
Along with aid for banks, he also called on Congress to move quickly on legislation to overhaul regulations on US financial markets.
"I ask this Congress to join me in doing whatever proves necessary," Obama said. "Because we cannot consign our nation to an open-ended recession."
With US automakers struggling for survival, Obama also said he would allow neither their demise nor "their own bad practices" to be rewarded.
Thinking longer-term, Obama said both political parties must give up favored programs while uniting behind his campaign promises to help the millions without health insurance, build better schools and move the nation to more-efficient fuel use.
Obama urged lawmakers to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change by creating a cap-and-trade system of limits and pollution allowances.
He said the budget he is sending to Congress on Thursday will call for $15 billion a year in federal spending to spur development of environmentally friendly but so far cost-ineffective energy sources such as wind and solar, biofuels, clean coal and more fuel-efficient vehicles.
"We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century," he said. "And yet, it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient. We invented solar technology, but we've fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it. New plug-in hybrids roll off our assembly lines, but they will run on batteries made in Korea."
Even as Washington pours money into the economic recovery, Obama said the budget deficit, at $1.3 trillion and ballooning, must be brought under control.
He promised he would slash it by half by the end of his term in 2013, mostly by ending US combat in Iraq and eliminating some of Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy.
The speech had the trappings of a State of the Union address, the annual presidential policy presentation to Congress. Technically it was not one, though, because Obama has been in office just five weeks, not long enough to present such a speech.
Still, it was a night for Obama to sketch out his priorities in a setting unmatched for the rest of the year. Obama was speaking to both chambers of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Cabinet and special guests.
Cheered robustly as he entered the chamber of the House of Representatives, Obama grinned, shook hands and kissed lawmakers and his former presidential rival, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. It took nearly 15 minutes for him to make his way past lawmakers eager to welcome the first black US president into a Capitol built by slaves. Obama's 52-minute speech was interrupted 61 times by applause.
Poll numbers show Obama continues to enjoy wide popularity. He has used that political capital — along with strong Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress — to push through a $787 billion economic recovery plan in his first month in office.
However, despite Obama's expressed desire for bipartisanship, Republican lawmakers were almost unanimously opposed to the stimulus package.
In the Republicans' televised response to Obama's speech, Louisiana's young, charismatic governor, Bobby Jindal exhorted his party colleagues to be Obama's "strongest partners" when they agree with him. But he signaled that will not happen much, calling Democrats in Congress "irresponsible" for passing the stimulus package.
"The way to lead is not to raise taxes and put more money and power in the hands of Washington politicians," Jindal said.
Jindal, the first Indian-American to lead a state, is considered a likely presidential contender in 2012.
In contrast to many State of the Union addresses by George W. Bush, Obama did not emphasize foreign policy. He touched on his intention to chart new strategies in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and to forge a new image for the United States around the world even as he keeps up the fight against terrorism.
"Living our values doesn't make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger," he said. "And that is why I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture."
He said the United States was working with the G-20 group of nations "to restore confidence in our financial system, avoid the possibility of escalating protectionism, and spur demand for American goods in markets across the globe."
Obama spoke at a time when Americans face a constant stream of bad economic news. Some 3.6 million jobs have disappeared so far in the deepening recession. Americans have lost trillions of dollars in retirement, college and savings accounts, with the stock market falling nearly half from its peak of 16 months ago.
He recalled the recent past, when "short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity" and difficult decisions were put off for another day.
"Well, that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here," he said.
Among the presidential guests was Ty'Sheoma Bethea, a student at J.V. Martin Junior High School in Dillon, South Carolina, who was seated next to first lady Michelle Obama.
"We are not quitters," she wrote in a letter seeking improvements at her rundown school, words that Obama turned to at the conclusion of his speech.
"If we confront without fear the challenges of our time and summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit, then someday years from now our children can tell their children that this was the time when we performed, in the words that are carved into this very chamber, 'something worthy to be remembered."'Reuse content