Seeking to steady a nervous nation, President Obama on Tuesday used a sweeping address to Congress to assure Americans “we will rebuild, we will recover” and erased all doubt that he will try to make good on his campaign promises of comprehensive health care reform, troop withdrawal from Iraq and tackling colossal deficits.
“We are not quitters,” Mr. Obama said, taking the lectern as the nation’s first black president. He accepted the enthusiastic applause of both Republicans and Democrats in the House chamber and called on partisans from across the spectrum to join him in a pact of shared sacrifices and shared accomplishments.
“The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation. The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach,” he said. “Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure. What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more.”
Mr. Obama gave voters plenty of specifics by which to judge him. He said his administration has already identified $2 trillion in savings over the next 10 years, including his vow to end subsidies to big agribusinesses that he said don’t need the help.
He also laid out three major challenges that he said the nation must confront even as it works to restore an economy suffering a 14-month recession, Mr. Obama pledged to “seek a cure for cancer in our time,” to restore American leadership on alternative energy and to insist that students attend at least one year of post-high school education as a patriotic duty.
“Dropping out of high school is no longer an option,” he said. “It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country.”
In the Republican response, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal matched Mr. Obama’s praise for Americans’ resilience and blasted his own party for failing the nation by embracing “earmarks and big government spending.”
“Republicans lost your trust - and rightly so,” he told voters.
But while calling for bipartisanship, Mr. Jindal said Democrats are going down that same big-spending path as Republicans, and said his party must oppose them when they do.
• To read the text of President Obama’s remarks, click here.
“Democratic leaders say their legislation will grow the economy. What it will do is grow the government, increase our taxes down the line, and saddle future generations with debt,” he said. “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.”
Republicans were usually quick to applaud along with Democrats for many of Mr. Obama’s calls to action, but they greeted the president’s declaration that the stimulus spending bill was “free of earmarks” with laughter.
When Mr. Obama defended his tax increase on wealthy Americans and predicted that Republicans would call is “a massive tax increase on the American people,” Republican Rep. John Culberson of Texas shouted, “You’re right.”
And Mr. Obama, even as he extended the hand of bipartisanship, ruled out debate with those who say the government doesn’t have a role in trying to ease the current economic troubles.
“That does not mean we can afford to ignore our long-term challenges. 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,” he said.
In the speech, which lasted 52 minutes and was interrupted by applause 65 times, Mr. Obama took a victory lap on the $787 billion economic-stimulus spending bill, which he passed almost exclusively with Democratic votes, and said that was only a beginning to what the government must do to rescue the economy.
He challenged the stock market, which has declined markedly since he took office, saying, “Wall Street may be more comforted by an approach that gives banks bailouts with no strings attached, and that holds nobody accountable for their reckless decisions. But such an approach won’t solve the problem.”
He balanced his pledge with more bank aid with a harsh message for corporate bosses, noting their rescue will come with a short leash.
But he also cast the blanket of blame for the economic situation across government, business and American consumers themselves.
“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,” he said.
Two of the applause lines turned into a partisan duel. Republican lawmakers leapt to their feet and applauded when Mr. Obama said the current generation cannot pass on to its children “a debt they cannot pay.” But then the president responded to the sarcastic applause by quickly calling it “the deficit we inherited,” prompting an even louder ovation from the chamber’s much more numerous Democrats.
That list will come Thursday when he delivers his first budget to Congress, in which he will lay out the specifics that will fill out his lofty campaign promises.
He told legislators that along with the new programs that he will call on them to pass, they will have to accept a streamlined federal government. Although, his list of cuts seemed to rehash the same areas presidents of both parties have targeted, only to find resistance in Congress and the federal bureaucracy.
“In this budget, we will end education programs that don’t work and end direct payments to large agribusinesses that don’t need them. We’ll eliminate the no-bid contracts that have wasted billions in Iraq and reform our defense budget so that we’re not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don’t use,” Mr. Obama said.
“We will root out the waste, fraud, and abuse in our Medicare program that doesn’t make our seniors any healthier, and we will restore a sense of fairness and balance to our tax code by finally ending the tax breaks for corporations that ship our jobs overseas,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s speech was not formally a State of the Union address, which is the custom for newly elected presidents, although it had essentially the same trappings, including a packed House chamber.
But some of Mr. Obama’s problems followed him into the chamber. On one side sat Sen. Roland W. Burris, the Illinois Democrat who took his seat but who has come under fire for inconsistencies in his story about his dealings with disgraced former Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.
On the Republican side sat Sen. John McCain, who lost last year’s election to Mr. Obama but who applauded the president’s calls for greenhouse gas emissions caps, and Sen. Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican who withdrew as Mr. Obama’s commerce secretary nominee.
Missing from the chamber was Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the Cabinet member taken to an undisclosed location to be prepared to take control of government should catastrophe strike the Capitol.
In keeping with tradition, first lady Michelle Obama hosted average Americans in her box, including several students from the D.C. area.
Also joining her were Leonard Abess Jr., chief executive of City National Bank of Florida, who in November shared with his employees some of the $60 million in proceeds he made from the sale of City National shares, and Ty’Sheoma Bethea, an eighth-grade student from Dillon, S.C., who wrote Congress asking it to help rebuild her crumbling school.
Recalling his own visit to her school, Mr. Obama read from Ty’Sheoma’s letter: “We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters.”
In some ways, Republicans found themselves in the same position as Democrats who were reluctant to criticize President Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and in the run-up to the Iraq war.
They tried to strike a balance, with House Minority Leader John A. Boehner praising the president’s leadership but saying it’s Democrats who are failing to live up to Mr. Obama’s standards of bipartisanship.
“Republicans want to be partners with the president in finding responsible solutions to the challenges facing our nation, but thus far congressional leaders in the president’s own party have stood in the way,” said Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
As high as Mr. Obama’s rhetoric was, his approval ratings have tumbled somewhat from the dizzying heights he had attained at his inauguration.
Gallup’s tracking poll showed his popularity at 59 percent this week, down 10 percentage points from late January, as self-identified Republicans have lost their enthusiasm for the president.