Obama To Congress: Act On Stimulus Plan

President-elect Obama said congressional inaction on his economic stimulus package could make a bad situation dramatically worse. In a speech at George Mason University, outside Washington, Obama blamed the economic crisis on "an era of profound irresponsibility."

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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. Since he came to Washington this week, President-elect Barack Obama has spoken every day about what he wants from Congress - a huge economic stimulus package. In a speech today, he also issued a call to the American people. Mr. Obama echoed Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy and urged Americans to restore their confidence in government and the U.S. economy. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President-elect Obama painted a frightening picture of a worsening economic crisis with more than two million jobs lost and manufacturing at its lowest level in almost three decades. He said it's not too late to stop the downward spiral, but warned soon it could be. Mr. Obama says Congress should have an open and honest debate about his economic stimulus package, but be quick about it.

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: For every day we wait or point fingers or drag our feet, more Americans will lose their jobs, more families will lose their savings, more dreams will be deferred and denied. And our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse.

HORSLEY: As part of his plan, Mr. Obama wants the federal government to spend hundreds of billions of dollars building roads and bridges, digitizing medical records and investing in clean energy. He says the goal is not only to create jobs in the short run, but to put people to work in ways that pay long-term dividends.

President-elect OBAMA: It's not just another public works program. It's a plan that recognizes both the paradox and promise of this moment - the fact that there are millions of Americans trying to find work even as, all around the country, there's so much work to be done.

HORSLEY: The president-elect acknowledged new spending on such a massive scale will deepen the deficit, at a time when the government is already expected to run in the red by more than a trillion dollars this year. He said skepticism is understandable, given how much money the government's already spent on financial bailouts with little to show for it. He said given the dire economic situation, the government has no choice but to act.

President-elect OBAMA: It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth. But at this particular moment, only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe.

HORSLEY: In addition to new government spending, Mr. Obama's stimulus proposal will include hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts, including the thousand dollar cut for working families he promised during the campaign. He's also calling for a sweeping effort to prevent home foreclosures and an overhaul of the nation's financial regulations.

His message today was aimed partly at lawmakers, but also at the American people. His tone borrowed from another new president who spoke during an even deeper economic crisis, rallying the public to look beyond their fears.

Dr. DAVID WOOLNER (Executive Director, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute; Assistant Professor, History and Political Science, Marist College): Part of what Roosevelt really felt he had to do was to restore the faith of the American people in democracy itself and in our government.

HORSLEY: David Woolner is executive director of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in Hyde Park, New York. He says it's no accident the incoming president is echoing President Roosevelt.

Dr. WOOLNER: Part of what leadership is all about is restoring and maintaining confidence of the people in their government and in their leadership, and that's a good deal of what President-elect Obama is going to have to do.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama also hearkened back to President Kennedy today, urging Americans to ask not what's good for them, but what's good for the country their children will inherit.

President-elect OBAMA: More than any program or policy, it is this spirit that will enable us to confront these challenges with the same spirit that has led previous generations to face down war and depression and fear itself.

HORSLEY: If Americans adopt that spirit, Mr. Obama said, 2009 will be remembered as a new and hopeful beginning, hard as that may be to imagine in the midst of the worrisome present. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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Obama To Congress: Act Now On Economic Plan

Read Obama's Speech

President-elect Barack Obama tried to win public support Thursday for a massive economic recovery plan, warning that the U.S. could be in a recession for years if Congress doesn't act quickly.

Speaking to a group at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Obama said his proposal combines the country's short-term need for jobs and greater efficiency with a long-term plan for improvements in energy, health care, education and infrastructure.

"It's a plan that recognizes both the paradox and the promise of this moment — the fact that there are millions of Americans trying to find work even as, all around the country, there's so much work to be done," he said.

Obama said his proposal — which includes tax cuts for individuals and some businesses — would create or save about 3 million jobs. It's expected to cost as much as $775 billion over two years, although the ultimate price tag is not known.

Obama told the group Thursday that his plan includes proposals on:

Energy: Doubling the production of alternative energy in the next three years; modernizing more than 75 percent of the country's federal buildings; and improving energy efficiency in 2 million homes. He said these initiatives would save consumers and taxpayers billions of dollars and create job opportunities for building solar panels, wind turbines, and fuel efficient cars and buildings.

Health care: Computerizing all of the country's medical records. Obama said this would save money and jobs and reduce medical errors that cost lives.

Education: Equipping classrooms with state-of-the-art laboratories, libraries and computers. He also said his plan calls for additional training for teachers.

Infrastructure projects: Repairing roads, bridges and schools; updating the electricity grid; and expanding broadband access across the country.

In addition, Obama said he would make good on a campaign promise to give working families a $1,000 tax cut in an effort to encourage spending and get the economy moving. And he said he would continue the extension of unemployment insurance and health care coverage to help Americans who have lost their jobs during the economic downturn.

He warned that the U.S. could see double-digit unemployment, falling wages and a decrease in college enrollment if Congress doesn't have legislation ready for his signature soon after he is sworn in on Jan. 20. Some in Congress expressed concern about the plan because of its impact on the growing budget deficit — which is forecast to hit $1.2 trillion this year.

"For every day we wait or point fingers or drag our feet, more Americans will lose their jobs. More families will lose their savings. More dreams will be deferred and denied," Obama said.

Obama acknowledged that the stimulus plan would add to the budget deficit in the short term. However, he said that not pumping enough money into the economy would lead to a greater loss of jobs and personal income.

"Only government can break the vicious cycles that are crippling our economy — where a lack of spending leads to lost jobs which leads to even less spending; where an inability to lend and borrow stops growth and leads to even less credit," he said.

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