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Obama addresses Congress, nation tonight

The new president makes his first speech to the House and Senate, and his agenda is loaded.

February 25, 2009|Christi Parsons and Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — Speaking to a nation shaken by joblessness and a collapsing stock market, President Obama on Tuesday sought to rally the public with optimism and ambition, saying the country would overcome its economic challenges by embracing a new era of American ingenuity.

"The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation," Obama said. "The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and universities, in our fields and our factories, in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth."

In his debut address to a joint session of Congress, which was broadcast to the nation in prime time, the president argued that the country would not overcome its economic problems without also making long-term changes in healthcare and energy policy that he promoted during his presidential campaign. Those include expanded access to health insurance and efforts to fight global warming, which critics say would place new costs on a battered economy.

The president also hinted at a massive bank bailout in the works, one costing "probably more than we've already set aside," as well as some form of government aid for the domestic automobile industry that he said would not come "without cost."

In the wake of those hard messages, Obama offered assurances that his administration was going "line by line" through the federal budget in search of wasteful and ineffective programs.

Rather than promoting his agenda point by point, the president asked Americans to be open to proposals he will lay out in the coming days, and to make a commitment to "come together and lift this nation from the depths of this crisis."

The tableau in the House chambers was a striking one, even for a nation growing acclimated to an African American president. Obama stood at the podium in a dark suit and bright-red tie, with Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House, poised behind him holding the gavel. Vice President Joe Biden completed the image of racial and gender diversity, which was televised around the world.

In another sign of the changed environment, Obama spoke almost entirely about the economy and domestic priorities, with only glancing references to challenges overseas -- a significant departure from the George W. Bush years.

The speech was Obama's first to a formal assembly of Congress. Although widely regarded as his inaugural State of the Union address, presidents in their first year of office generally do not call it that.

Delivering the Republican response, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana echoed Obama's homage to American ingenuity but disputed the president's solutions to the economic turmoil.

"Democratic leaders say their legislation will grow the economy," Jindal said in a televised address. "What it will do is grow the government, increase our taxes down the line, and saddle future generations with debt. . . . It's no way to strengthen our economy, create jobs or build a prosperous future for our children."

Speaking on the eve of Lent, liturgical Christianity's 40-day period of self-denial, Obama called for a break from the excesses of the past and for a period of discipline and restraint.

"We have lived through an era where, too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity. . . . Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market. People bought homes they knew they couldn't afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway," the president said.

But Obama also foreshadowed the massive spending in the near future, nodding to bailouts of the banking and auto industries, though not offering details about them.

He said the nation could not "walk away" from the automobile industry, but gave no clues to how the government would guide the restructuring of the troubled automakers.

As he prepares for what will probably be an even more expensive and unpopular bailout of banks and financial service companies, Obama was careful to condemn the practices that brought the industry to its current state of crisis.

The president said he intended to hold banks "fully accountable" for the assistance they receive, and that they "will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer."

But in his first nod to the size of the bank bailout under consideration, Obama said the plan he was crafting would "require significant resources from the federal government -- and yes, probably more than we've already set aside."

The cost of action will be substantial, he said, but the "cost of inaction will be far greater, for it could result in an economy that sputters along for not months or years, but perhaps a decade."

The president cast his proposals to help the economy as short-term expenditures. In the longer term, he promised, the nation would keep reins on its spending.

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