Economy To Dominate Obama's Speech To Congress

President Obama makes his first address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday amid economic anxiety. Obama is expected to talk about his own budget and other challenges facing his fledgling administration.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Tonight, President Barack Obama outlines his policies and goals before a joint session of Congress. And while it's not an official State Of The Union address, it will sound like one. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says President Obama will talk about health care, energy, jobs, education and deficit reduction. And Gibbs says it won't be all economic gloom and doom.

ROBERT GIBBS: This president doesn't need a lecture about hope - we've done that before, we'll do that again. We understand there are brighter days ahead.

BLOCK: That's Robert Gibbs, speaking this morning on NBC's "Today" show. Joining me now is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. And Mara, this is a long list of big problems the president wants to tackle at once. How is he going to explain the need to do it simultaneously and now?

MARA LIASSON: Well, the White House is rightly concerned about the ability of the system to handle this much change at once - or to afford this much change. And there are signs of bailout fatigue. But as the president has said more than once, he believes that these problems are all interconnected - whether they're health care and deficit reduction, energy independence and foreign policy, education and economic growth. And as he says over and over again, we can't solve any of them if we don't try to solve all of them.

NORRIS: the stimulus plan, which is still controversial; the housing plan; the bank bailout, which is still a work in progress.

BLOCK: And just ahead of this speech, there's a whole raft of public opinion polls that've been coming. What do they show?

LIASSON: Well, they're very positive. He has high job-approval ratings. He's in the mid-60s - higher than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton was around this time, about where Reagan was at the beginning of his term. The polls also show, however, the possibility for a populist backlash to the bailouts. By big margins, the New York Times poll says the financial bailout will benefit bankers, not America - all Americans, ordinary Americans. And people are opposed to giving any more money to the auto companies. And, you know, last week you had this rant on CNBC by Rick Santelli, which got tremendous play on the Internet, saying that the housing plan was going to bail out the losers. The White House pushed back very, very hard against him specifically, because they're rightly worried.

They want the president to be in sync with populist anger, not on the receiving end. So, it is important how he explains all these things. Today in the USA Today poll, 54 percent of people approved of government, quote, temporarily taking over major banks in danger of failing. But 57 percent disapproved of, quote, temporarily nationalizing major banks. So, it really matters how you say it. Words matter. This is a president who understands that.

BLOCK: And what words, specifically, do we expect to hear from President Obama?

LIASSON: Well, I think one thing you're going to hear tonight is, he's going to put health-care reform not so much in the context of an expansion of rights - universal coverage - but as an economic issue. Getting health-care costs under control, I think you will hear him say, is necessary if we're going to return to fiscal responsibility. And Obama's Budget Director, Peter Orszag, says over and over again, health-care reform is entitlement reform. You can't have fiscal responsibility without doing health-care reform. Another specific thing I think you'll hear him say tonight is that he inherited the trillion-dollar deficit from George W. Bush. He wants to place the blame squarely on his predecessor there.

BLOCK: And another big question for tonight is tone. We heard Robert Gibbs addressing this notion of how hopeful this message will be.

LIASSON: It's a big balancing act. As soon as he was elected, he made a very deliberate effort to bring expectations down, to talk about how bad things were. As soon as he was inaugurated, he wanted to create this sense of urgency and crisis so Congress would pass a stimulus plan, and it worked. Polls show people are very patient, but they're also very concerned. I think that the president does have the ability to keep Americans' spirits up. He wants to do that tonight - he keeps on saying he's an eternal optimist. But he is a sober, serious guy. These are sober, serious times. He's not really a happy warrior, but I do think he's going to try to send a message of optimism tonight.

BLOCK: Okay, and the Republican response tonight from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Melissa.

LIASSON: NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.

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Obama Pledges: 'We Will Rebuild, We Will Recover'

The Republican Response

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal delivers the Republican response to Obama's address in Baton Rouge. AP i i

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal delivers the GOP response to President Obama's first address to Congress in this image from video. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal delivers the Republican response to Obama's address in Baton Rouge. AP

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal delivers the GOP response to President Obama's first address to Congress in this image from video.

AP
President Obama addresses a joint session of Congress at the Capitol on Tuesday. i i

President Obama addresses a joint session of Congress at the Capitol on Tuesday. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images
President Obama addresses a joint session of Congress at the Capitol on Tuesday.

President Obama addresses a joint session of Congress at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Obama in a confident national address Tuesday night told Americans in the starkest of terms that their day of economic reckoning had arrived, and he warned that even more money will be needed to shore up the nation's troubled banking system.

But he also sought to leave a nation yearning for assurance that better times are on the horizon with a powerful note of bold, in-this-together optimism.

"While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken; though we are living through difficult and uncertain times," he said, "I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before."

During his first speech before a joint session of Congress — and perhaps the most important in his brief political career — the president stuck largely to the nation's most pressing issue, the economy. He said he understands the nation's anxieties — from sleepless nights, college tuition bills, lost jobs and faltering businesses.

"The impact of this recession is real," he said, "and it is everywhere."

'Day Of Reckoning'

And in blunt language he excoriated the nation's profligate recent past.

"Our economy," he said, "did not fall into decline overnight."

He called out Washington, Wall Street and Main Street for grasping short-term gratification rather than "long-term prosperity," for failing to pursue alternatives to oil or affordable health care, for piling up debt and for putting off difficult decisions for another day.

"Well, that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here," Obama said.

The president warned that only long-term investments in education, affordable health care and alternative fuels that wean the nation from its dependence on oil will ensure that "this century will be another American century."

"That is our responsibility," he said.

It was the type of astringent message that has become the president's trademark since he took office five weeks ago, while the nation has slid further into recession. Tuesday's speech was not intended to introduce new programs or concepts. This is a president, after all, who, like many before him, has not had the luxury of setting his own agenda.

The agenda has set itself, and he spent much of his speech laying out the steps he has taken to help stop the historic economic slide, while warning that sacrifices will have to be made and priorities realigned.

"And that includes me," he said.

Belief That Government Can Help

Obama stoutly defended his nearly trillion-dollar stimulus plan — attacked by Republicans as wasteful and a burden on future generations and looked upon with suspicion by many Americans — as a necessary immediate step to revive the economy in the short term.

He noted that government has historically played a major role in bolstering the nation's economy: from the Civil War and its railroads to the post-World War II GI bill that "created the largest middle class in history."

"In each case, government didn't supplant enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise," he said.

Obama said he pushed his stimulus plan "not because I believe in bigger government. I don't." The package, the president said, will save or create 3.5 million jobs and help states and cities keep teachers, health care workers and police officers employed.

The president acknowledged skepticism about whether the plan will work and said that he has tasked Vice President Joe Biden to oversee the historic spending.

"The recovery plan we passed is the first step in getting our economy back on track," he said.

The other initiatives include a fund to help provide auto, college and small-business loans; the plan to help "responsible" homeowners stave off foreclosure; and efforts to shore up banks and ease the credit crunch.

"The flow of credit is the lifeblood of our economy," he said, and recovery will be choked off if it is not restored.

The president flatly acknowledged the unpopularity of helping banks. "I get it," he said, declaring that the days of profligate CEOs are over. "This plan will require significant resources from the federal government — and, yes, probably more than we've already set aside," Obama said.

"But while the cost of action will be great, I can assure you that the cost of inaction will be far greater."

"It's not about helping banks, it's about helping people," he said, to a standing ovation, one of many from both sides of the aisle.

Three Major Initiatives

The president also gave broad outlines for what will be his three major budget initiatives: clean, renewable energy; comprehensive health care reform; and education.

Investments in those initiatives are expected to be outlined in more detail this week, when the president submits his budget to Congress.

"My budget does not attempt to solve every problem or address every issue," he said. "It reflects the stark reality of what we've inherited: a trillion-dollar deficit, a financial crisis and a costly recession."

Obama said that under his budget, failed education programs will be cut, as will obsolete weapons systems and "direct payments to large agribusinesses that don't need them." He reiterated his call to reduce the nation's skyrocketing deficit to about $530 billion by the end of his first term by ending tax cuts for the wealthy and making spending cuts. The president pledged that no family earning less than $250,000 would see its taxes increase by "a single dime. Not a single dime."

He said that the costs of Medicare and Social Security must be addressed; and he said he would soon announce a "way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends the war."

Call for Bipartisanship

The president also renewed his call for bipartisanship, a condition that stubbornly refuses to take root in the nation's capital.

"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," he said, to some laughter from the packed chamber. "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 coming months, and where we return after those debates are done."

Though Obama's bipartisan message and his strenuous outreach have resulted in little agreement between the parties, the administration was no doubt buoyed by recent polls that show that about three-quarters of Americans say that the president has been trying to work with Republicans.

And more than 60 percent said that they believed Republicans opposed Obama's stimulus plan for political rather than policy reasons.

"The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation," the president said. "The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach."

GOP Response

In the Republican response to Obama's speech, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal spoke about his party's willingness to work with the president. "Where we agree, Republicans must be the president's strongest partners," he said.

But Jindal also laid out objections to Obama's stimulus plan — "larded with wasteful spending" — and the "irresponsible" expansion of government.

"Democratic leaders say their legislation will grow the economy," Jindal said. "What it will do is grow the government, increase our taxes down the line and saddle future generations with debt."

Jindal, 37, the son of immigrants from India and considered one of the Republican Party's rising stars, is among a handful of GOP governors who have said they will reject some of the stimulus package money that is flowing to the states. He scolded his own party for diverging from its principles of "limited government, fiscal discipline and personal responsibility." To American voters, he said, "Our party is determined to regain your trust."

Jindal echoed the themes of Obama's main initiatives: energy independence, the crisis in health care and education. But, he said, though their priorities might be similar, their solutions diverge.

"Republicans want to work with President Obama. We appreciate his message of hope," Jindal said. "Sometimes we look for hope in different places."

'An America That Does Not Quit'

In closing, Obama summoned what some refer to as the mythic America: a valiant people working hard, and making future generations proud.

"If we come together and lift this nation from the depths of this crisis; if we put our people back to work and restart the engine of our prosperity; if we confront without fear the challenges of our time and summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit," he said, "then some day, years from now, our children can tell their children that this was the time when we performed, in the words that are carved in this very chamber, 'something worthy to be remembered.' "

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