WASHINGTON – Barack Obama’s balancing act has begun.
Pivoting between grim messenger and optimist in chief, the president told Congress and the nation Tuesday night that a “day of reckoning” had arrived, but promised that the “United States will emerge stronger than before.”
Obama opened his first prime-time address with a hopefulness that Americans have sought amid the angst and anger over rising unemployment, falling home prices, and the unprecedented federal bailouts of banks, automakers and homeowners that Obama says are necessary to deal with the problems.
“While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken; though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before,” Obama said in an address to a joint session of Congress.
Critics have claimed Obama has added to a spiral of uncertainty by talking down the economy to push his massive $787 billion “stimulus” package through Congress and to pave the way for more spending and bailouts down the road.
Tuesday night, Obama again did not raise expectations for a quick recovery. Indeed, he said that if the government can’t solve the credit crisis hindering lending, “our recovery will be choked off before it even begins.”
But much of his address focused on longer-term goals beyond the immediate economic troubles facing the nation.
Obama emphasized the need for investments in developing alternative energy, fixing the country’s costly and incomplete health care system, and helping children get the higher education they need to compete for future jobs.
Obama said his first budget, which he will release Thursday, will include a blueprint for health care reform and a long-term assault on the federal deficit.
While continuing his plea for bipartisanship, Obama offered his view of how the economy had unraveled, implicating a host of players and policies, including the Bush tax cuts.
“We have lived through an era where, too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity, where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter or the next election,” he said.
“A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. 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 bank and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway.”
Left out of Obama’s finger-pointing were congressional Democrats, whom critics say encouraged lax lending policies that led to the bad loans the president decried.
Obama only briefly and broadly got into foreign policy. He promised to outline a “way forward” in Iraq, mentioned terrorism only once, and never brought up Iran and North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions were a frequent target of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Obama entered the House chambers in the Capitol more popular than some aspects of his plan.
His job-approval rating was 62 percent in a new USA Today-Gallup poll.
More than eight in 10 poll respondents favored government spending that would create jobs and two-thirds favored federal aid to states in fiscal trouble. Both are central to thestimulus plan Obama signed into law last week, and which passed with the support of only three Republican senators and no Republican House members.
Other aspects of Obama’s plans are not so popular. Only about four in 10 surveyed by USA Today/Gallup favored giving aid to troubled automakers and banks, and majorities also worried about the ballooning federal debt.
While a majority supported Obama’s plan to use federal dollars to help some homeowners pay their mortgage, a majority also called the plan “unfair.”
And Republicans are not softening their opposition.
Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, in remarks released before he gave the GOP response, said the stimulus bill “will grow the government, increase our taxes down the line, and saddle future generations with debt.
“Who among us would ask our children for a loan so we could spend the money we do not have, on things we do not need?” he asked. “That is precisely what the Democrats in Congress just did.”
Talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh railed against those who compared Obama’s communications skills with Ronald Reagan’s, and said Obama was feeding into “despair” and “chaos” so he could move the United States toward socialism.
“Obama is not Reaganesque,” Limbaugh said on his national radio show hours before Obama spoke. “He is Big Brotheresque.”
Contact GNS Political Writer Chuck Raasch at craasch(AT)gns.gannett.com