Obama Warns Of Tough Challenges Ahead

President Obama described an America ready for the daunting challenges it faces, from an economy in crisis to wars and terrorist threats from abroad. In his first speech to a joint session of Congress, the president called on politicians and the public to embrace shared sacrifice and new efforts to improve health care, schools and the environment.

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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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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

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

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

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

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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