Words of hope

The Baltimore Sun

Washington - President Barack Obama made it clear last night that the worst economy in decades won't keep him from trying his best to redeem his campaign promises.

His first appearance before a joint session of Congress was designed to reassure Americans that better days are ahead. But he also cast the economic crisis as an opportunity for "bold action and big ideas," namely, his own.

Obama wants to overhaul the U.S. health care system, put the country on the road to energy independence and make major new investments in education. That won't be easy, though, in the face of the worst economy in decades.

"The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation," Obama said. "What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face and take responsibility for the future once more."

Saying that he intends to lay "a new foundation for lasting prosperity," Obama outlined an ambitious and expensive agenda for the next four years. The time had come, he said, for America "to take charge of our future."

His address, laced with populist rhetoric, was aimed more at the viewing public than at Washington insiders. Obama wanted to make it plain that he understands the suffering and anger of ordinary Americans.

Referring to the unpopularity of the federal program to bail out troubled banks, he said, "I promise you, I get it." He defended the effort by arguing that "it's not about helping banks, it's about helping people" buy homes, find work and have more money to spend.

He cast the economic crisis as an opportunity for government action, using images such as the transcontinental railroad and the post-World War II G.I. Bill - but not New Deal public works programs - to cast America as "a nation that has seen promise amid peril and claimed opportunity from ordeal."

"Now," he said, "we must be that nation again" by acting on his plans to place a carbon tax on emissions, move immediately toward affordable health care for everyone, and expand educational opportunity.

For Obama to accomplish any of his major first-term goals would be a significant achievement, analysts say. Merely by pushing forward, he might make Americans feel that progress is being made.

"He's trying to do a lot," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist. "Some people, of course, are very skeptical about that, that it's basically a lot of activity without a very clear idea about how it's going to work. ... But it's a level of activity that I think is going to be reassuring to the American people."

The prime-time speech, a prelude to delivering his first budget blueprint this week, contained no major surprises and was designed to shore up support for steps already taken. Obama sought to link his sweeping domestic initiatives to economic recovery and the nation's long-term progress.

He blamed banks and lenders for pushing home loans on people who could not afford them and Washington politicians, by implication, for giving tax breaks to the wealthy while avoiding tough decisions. At the same time, Obama answered conservatives by defending the need for forceful government action.

"I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves," he said, "that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity."

He acknowledged that fixing the financial system would probably require federal dollars. And he called for raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and expanding the size of the U.S. armed forces, two more promises from his campaign.

National opinion surveys indicate that everyday Americans remain optimistic about Obama's ability to deliver the changes he promised during his campaign. It is investors who have been impatient and whose confidence he'd clearly like to bolster.

Since Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Obama unveiled plans to stabilize banks and rescue homeowners on the brink of foreclosure, the Dow Jones industrial average has plunged more than 10 percent.

"He's kind of struck out. The market reads these things as they are, inadequate palliatives," said Peter Morici, a University of Maryland economist and administration critic.

Privately, some Democratic White House veterans worry that Obama is practicing kitchen-sink politics - lobbing everything at the public when what is needed first is an end to a prolonged financial crisis.

But a Democratic strategist with administration ties saw considerable political value in Obama's prime-time speech.

"Right now, the public is having so much thrown at them and they don't have a frame other than 'change' for processing it," said Celinda Lake, a pollster and former campaign adviser to Vice President Joe Biden Jr.

Obama, she said, "has got to put his brand down for himself and his party, particularly since he's still a relatively new phenomenon."

The speech was part of a new communications strategy to emphasize ways that everyday Americans would benefit from Obama's evolving efforts to stabilize banks and rescue homeowners from foreclosure.

A week after signing the $787 billion economic stimulus package into law, he repeated his promise to cut the federal deficit in half "by the end of my first term."

Economists and many policy analysts generally agree with his two-track approach, arguing that the stimulus measures will add relatively little to the nation's long-term debt. But getting Washington to make needed fiscal fixes will be an enormous undertaking that will involve overhauling huge benefit programs that have proved resistant to change.

Bill Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar, called the speech "a very important moment for Obama's presidency."

By laying out priorities, it "set the tone not just for a year but for a substantial portion of a presidency," Galston said.

Obama predicted brighter days ahead, signaling a shift from sober talk about the economy to more upbeat language.

"While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild. We will recover and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before," he said.

Those words, in contrast to his gloomy pronouncements in recent weeks and months, appeared to answer former President Bill Clinton's tacit criticism in a televised interview, in which he said that he wished Obama would express confidence that "we are going to get out of this and he feels good about the long run."

"Hope is found in unlikely places," Obama said last night. The only excerpt from his speech released by the White House before the evening newscasts was one designed to reassure viewers that things would get better.

That seemed to reinforce an impression that Obama was merely responding to Clinton's criticism and "falling prey to answering every political complaint, as opposed to just getting the policy right," said a former Clinton aide who requested anonymity to avoid cutting lines of communication with the new administration.

Then again, peddling hope, as Obama used to jokingly describe what he did, helped make him president in the first place.

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