Obama Vows To Get Millions Back To Work

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In his State of the Union address Wednesday night, President Obama said jobs must be the government's number one focus this year. But even as he confronts a 10 percent unemployment rate, Obama said he won't give up trying to overhaul the nation's health care system. Nor will he stop pursuing an even more elusive goal: cooperation between the two parties on Capitol Hill.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro.

Throughout our program this morning, we'll be examining President Obama's first State of the Union Address and the reaction to it. With the unemployment rate at 10 percent, the president said jobs must be the government's main focus this year. And Mr. Obama says he won't give up trying to overhaul the nation's health care system, either, nor will he stop pursuing another elusive goal: cooperation between the two parties on Capitol Hill.

NPR's Scott Horsley begins our coverage.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama says the worst of the economic storm has passed, thanks in part to the government stimulus bill he pushed through Congress a year ago. But Mr. Obama acknowledged many Americans are still struggling.

President BARACK OBAMA: That is why jobs must be our number one focus in 2010...

(Soundbite of clapping and cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: ...and that's why I'm calling for a new jobs bill tonight.

HORSLEY: The president reiterated some earlier ideas for spurring job growth, including a tax credit for businesses that hire new workers or raise wages. He also proposed using $30 billion from the bank bailout fund to help community banks make more loans to small businesses. Mr. Obama says those short-term moves aren't enough, though, to put the nation's economy on a solid footing. He also wants to rewrite financial regulations and invest more in clean energy. And as a first small step towards reducing budget deficits, he is proposing a partial freeze on federal spending in each of the next three years.

Pres. OBAMA: Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don't. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama also used the economy to frame the one issue that dominated much of last year in office: health care. He said fixing the system was a necessary step to controlling business costs and government spending. Congressional Democrats spent months piecing together a package that would extend health insurance to nearly all Americans, only to lose their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate just as the measure was nearing a vote. Public doubts about the plan contributed to that loss. Last night, Mr. Obama accepted a share of the blame for those doubts. He said he'd failed to explain the benefits of the health care plan.

Pres. OBAMA: By now, it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORSLEY: But Mr. Obama said the health care plan has come too far to simply walk away from it. While he didn't offer any specific ideas of how to win Congressional passage, he did urge lawmakers to take another look.

Pres. OBAMA: If anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors and stop insurance company abuses, let me know.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: Let me know.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Elsewhere in his speech, Mr. Obama threw several bones to Republicans, promising more support for nuclear power, offshore oil drilling and expanded trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who delivered the GOP response, applauded the president for steps he's taken to improve schools and to beef up forces in Afghanistan, but the Republican also found plenty to criticize in Mr. Obama's approach.

Governor BOB MCDONNELL (Republican, Virginia): Top-down, one-size-fits-all decision making should not replace the personal choices of free people in a free market.

HORSLEY: McDonnell, who was sworn in less than two weeks ago, is one of several successful Republicans who've helped breathe new life into the GOP, along with Senator-elect Scott Brown of Massachusetts, whose upset win last week cost Democrats their super majority in the Senate. The revival of Republican fortunes has put much of the president's agenda in jeopardy. But harkening back to his own campaign language, Mr. Obama said he hasn't given up trying to change the way Washington works.

Pres. OBAMA: I know it's an election year, and after last week, it's clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual, but we still need to govern. To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: And to Republican lawmakers, he said if they're going to insist on 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate, then they'll have to take responsibility as a governing party, as well.

Pres. OBAMA: Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama acknowledged the change many voters believed in a year ago has not come fast enough. Some doubt that change will ever come, or that he's the president who can deliver it. Mr. Obama said he is not giving up, though. America has stood up to earlier challenges, he said, because Americans have acted together as one people.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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