After weeks of dire warnings about looming economic catastrophe, President Obama sought to become rallier in chief Tuesday night, offering a hopeful message of brighter days ahead while being honest about the challenges confronting the nation.
Mr. Obama, who last year as a senator mocked President Bush’s final State of the Union message as “empty rhetoric” and asked voters to imagine having a leader “who rallied all Americans around a common purpose,” endeavored to do just that.
Beset by worldwide economic turmoil and top-level criticism from former President Bill Clinton that he’s been too pessimistic, Mr. Obama tried to allay public fears. He used his oratory skills in a format that’s served him best throughout his political rise: the prepared speech, in a grand setting, that allows him to transcend the media filter and talk directly to Americans.
Taking a shot at the Bush administration and the culture that cultivated the crisis, he told the joint session of Congress and a prime-time television audience that his administration would turn the page on an era that he said delayed critical debates and difficult decisions.
“That day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here,” he said.
He mixed in inspirational phrases as a signal that he would remain the hopeful man whom the nation elected.
“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,” the president said.
He added later that he has learned “hope is found in unlikely places,” including in “the dreams and aspirations of Americans who are anything but ordinary.”
The speech was a critical moment in Mr. Obama’s “evolution” from candidate to president, said Simon Rosenberg of liberal think tank NDN.
Mr. Rosenberg, who worked in the Clinton White House, said before the speech that the night was an opportunity for Mr. Obama to detail point by point how he will lead them during a time of crisis.
“The American people are willing to give him time, but he needs to make sure they walk away with a clear sense of what he wants to do for them and that they think that it’s actually possible for him to pull it off,” Mr. Rosenberg said.
Mr. Obama delivered some details, including comments sure to rile conservative critics.
Mr. Obama said he pushed the $787 billion economic-stimulus plan “not because I believe in bigger government” and insisted that he is “mindful” of the “massive debt we’ve inherited.” But he then ticked off government programs that he would grow from a broad investment in health care expansion, new energy technology research and school reform.
He did so while offering both practical and psychological assurances that his three-pronged plan for fiscal health - economic stimulus, housing, and banking and Wall Street reform - will pull the nation from recession.
He used some of the tough talk that earned him reputation for frankness along the campaign trail, earning his longest and most spontaneous applause for challenging every American to get at least one year of secondary education or training and saying dropping out of high school was “no longer an option.”
“It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country - and this country needs and values the talents of every American,” he said, as the chamber and galleries above rose to cheer.
The speech also gave the president a chance to offer his own spin in a preview of the budget blueprint that he will lay out Thursday.
Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Obama used campaign-style tactics to sell his $787 billion economic-stimulus plan earlier this month.
Although such tactics helped the president build record support for himself and the plan in the polls, Mr. Obama must get into the nitty-gritty details, Mr. Franc said.
“If he stays at 30,000 feet, he’s going to risk being thought of as the permanent campaigner,” Mr. Franc said. “He’ll seem like a one-trick pony who gives a great speech, but doesn’t really know how to manipulate the levers of government or be a real leader.”
“At some point, you want to know during a crisis your president has a grasp of the details and not just someone up on stage delivering a good line on command,” he said.
The president told lawmakers that he wanted to explain exactly how his economic agenda would include “hard choices” for deficit reduction and said his administration already had identified more than $2 trillion in budget savings.
Mr. Obama said everyone - including himself - must “sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars.”
He also directly asked Congress to send him legislation capping carbon pollution as part of an overall energy plan.
Having previously offered partisan jabs at Mr. Bush and having been the subject of relentless attacks from congressional Republicans - all but three of whom voted against his economic stimulus - Mr. Obama was on the other side and had to cater not just to his own voters, but also to the nation at large.
But much of the address smacked of his campaign rhetoric, from his booming declaration that health care reform “cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year” to the gushing supporters in the chamber chanting his signature “Fired up. Ready to go” slogan after the speech.
Although he was more detailed Tuesday, Mr. Obama, like past presidents in this forum, duplicated his successful campaign tactic of using personal stories to bolster his policy platform.
Joining first lady Michelle Obama in her box in the House chamber were a Republican governor who backed his stimulus plan, a solar executive who benefited from its provisions and a South Carolina preteen who wrote a letter to the president asking for her crumbling school to be rebuilt. Mr. Obama mentioned several of his wife’s guests during the address.
Mr. Obama is known for his speechmaking and has excelled in seven major critical addresses - his inaugural speech, his election night victory, his acceptance of the Democratic nomination, a global address in Berlin, a speech on race relations in America, an address to supporters after his first primary win in Iowa and his 2004 national political debut at the Democratic National Convention.
Tuesday’s address, which was lasted 52 minutes, was his longest speech yet.
The acceptance speech in Denver clocked in at just over 40 minutes.
Among his detailed promises that night were: “I will cut taxes for 95 percent of all working families” and that he would recruit new teachers and pay them higher salaries, lines he repeated last night.
But he also painted the future with a broad brush, noting that “we rise or fall as one nation” and that the American promise includes “an economy that honors the dignity of work.”