Obama Warns Of Tough Challenges Ahead
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama was criticized for saying he admired some things about Ronald Reagan. Last night, the president followed Mr. Reagan's example.
INSKEEP: In a speech to Congress, Mr. Obama continued Reagan's tradition of salting the gallery with heroes from everyday life. And in the face of economic disaster, the new president put on a cheerful disposition.
MONTAGNE: But those nods to Reagan's style did not mean that President Obama would be following Reagan's substance. He also spoke of dramatic changes in health care, energy, taxes and more.
He said the massive economic stimulus which he signed last week is vital in order to save and create jobs and called for fiscal discipline on the part of Congress. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA: It began as it always does, when the president travels to the Capitol to address the Congress.
Unidentified Man: Madame Speaker…
(Soundbite of gavel pounding)
Unidentified Man: …the president of the United States.
(Soundbite of applause)
GONYEA: Mr. Obama entered the chamber smiling broadly, shaking hands, slowly working his way to the podium. But this year it felt different. Speaker Pelosi beamed with almost uncontrollable delight as she welcomed this new president. And polls show that most Americans share at least somewhat in the optimism about this new leader. But the same polls also find Americans almost overwhelmed with anxiety, mostly about the economy.
So after the ceremonial entrance, the president quickly turned somber.
President BARACK OBAMA: I know that for many Americans watching right now, the state of our economy is a concern that rises above all others, and rightly so. If you haven't been personally affected by this recession, you probably know someone who has.
GONYEA: He went through a litany - lost jobs, delayed retirements, businesses hanging by a thread, students accepted to college with no way to pay for it.
President OBAMA: 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.
(Soundbite of applause)
GONYEA: The president spoke of how the country got in the trouble it's in today, a focus on the short-term, surpluses used to enrich the wealthy rather than invested, regulations gutted in the name of profits, people buying homes they couldn't afford, banks pushing bad loans.
President OBAMA: Well, that day of reckoning has arrived and the time to take charge of our future is here.
GONYEA: The president then shifted gears, looking at what now needs to be done. He praised the Congress for passing the economic stimulus bill. He said people will feel the benefits of its tax cuts starting in April. He spoke of the lack of confidence people have in the financial sector. He stressed that money in banks is insured and secure, but he also said banks need help so they can resume lending money.
President OBAMA: So I know how unpopular it is to be seen as helping banks right now, especially when everyone is suffering in part from their bad decisions. I promise you, I get it.
GONYEA: And he pledged that federal funds will be aggressively monitored.
President OBAMA: But I also know that in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger or yield to the politics of the moment. My job, our job, is to solve the problem. Our job is to govern with a sense of responsibility. I will not send - I will not spend a single penny for the purpose of rewarding a single Wall Street executive. But I will do whatever it takes to help the small business that can't pay its workers for the family that has saved and still can't get a mortgage.
GONYEA: Mr. Obama then turned to the issue of health care. That too, he said, has to be part of any economic recovery plan because of the toll escalating health care costs are taking. The president also spoke of investing in new kinds of energy and in a new energy infrastructure. It will create jobs, he said, and be good for the environment. The speech lasted 52 minutes and it wasn't until the final 10 that Mr. Obama switched to foreign policy. He said he's reviewing U.S. policies in Afghanistan, where troops levels are being increased; and in Iraq, where a plan for significant reductions could come soon.
President OBAMA: And with our friends and allies we will forge a new and comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan to defeat al-Qaida and combat extremism, because I will not allow terrorists to plot against the American people from safe havens halfway around the world.
(Soundbite of applause)
President OBAMA: We will not allow it.
GONYEA: Mr. Obama closed with a nod to a tradition begun by President Reagan in the 1980s saluting the extraordinary things being done by average American citizens, some of whom joined the first lady in the House gallery on this night.
President OBAMA: I think about Ty'Sheoma Bethea, the young girl from that school I visited in Dillon, South Carolina.
GONYEA: That school building is in disrepair, the president said, its walls crumbling. The girl heard the president mention her school during a press conference this month and on her own wrote a letter to Congress.
President OBAMA: The letter asks us for help and says, 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. That's what she said. We are not quitters.
GONYEA: After the president spoke, the Republican response was delivered by Louisiana's 37-year-old Governor Bobby Jindal, who has emerged as one of the party's prominent new leaders. Speaking from the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge, Jindal acknowledged the troubles the Republican Party has.
Governor BOBBY JINDAL (Republican, South Carolina): You elected Republicans to champion limited government, fiscal discipline and personal responsibility. Instead, Republicans went along with earmarks and big government spending in Washington. Republicans lost your trust - and rightly so.
GONYEA: Jindal praised the new president, but not his policies.
Gov. JINDAL: Republicans want to work with President Obama. We appreciate his message of hope, but sometimes it seems like we look for hope in different places. In the end, it comes down to an honest and fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.
GONYEA: Back in Washington, the number three Republican in the U.S. House, Mike Pence of Indiana, had this to say.
Representative MIKE PENCE (Republican, Indiana): For the president to remind the American people that we will get through this and we will come out stronger I think was very, very welcome.
GONYEA: But Pence was skeptical of the president's call for fiscal discipline.
Rep. PENCE: For the president on the one hand to call for fiscal discipline while announcing an aggressive agenda of new government spending in everything from education to health care to energy suggests that we've got a lot of room for debate in the coming months.
GONYEA: Meanwhile, Democrat John L. Lewis of Atlanta was asked about Mr. Obama's statement in his speech that the budget office has already identified $2 trillion in cuts over the next decade.
Representative JOHN L. LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): I think the president is right. We've got to cut some programs, certain programs that are not working and probably are a waste, not just social programs but some of the military spending also we've got to look at.
GONYEA: President Obama ended his speech with a renewed call for that ever-elusive quality of consensus. He said he knows that every American sitting in the chamber loves this country and wants it to succeed.
President OBAMA: Thank you. God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.
(Soundbite of applause)
GONYEA: President Obama making his first address to a joint session of the Congress at the Capitol last night.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: Last night's speech was the biggest to date for Barack Obama as president. You can track what the president's done so far to push through his agenda day by day since taking office on the Obama Tracker, a new feature on npr.org.
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