In a speech pegged on dire economic rhetoric, but laced with assurances that America will get back on its feet, the president vowed that the country would emerge stronger from the current crisis.
"The impact of this recession is real, and it is everywhere," Mr. Obama said. "But 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." (|
The speech, which looked very much like a formal State-Of-The Union address, marked a transition from the hard fights of the president's first month in office to his attempt to sell legislators and the American people on a broad set of initiatives.
"Now is the time to jumpstart job creation, re-start lending, and invest in areas like energy, health care, and education that will grow our economy, even as we make hard choices to bring our deficit down," the president said, stressing the importance of investments that will position the United States to compete on the world stage in the long run. (More On What Mr. Obama Said On The Economy)
Addressing a gallery that included first lady Michelle Obama, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members and everyday Americans - in addition to nearly every member of Congress - the president spoke for about 50 minutes.
Addresses to joint sessions of Congress are traditionally directed more at the American people than the lawmakers gathered in the chamber. For Mr. Obama, however - who currently holds a- the Republican opposition, which stood in nearly uniform opposition to his $787 billion stimulus package, might have been the more important audience.
Still, "this was basically a fireside chat," said CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield, comparing the president's speech to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's radio addresses.
Mr. Obama spent much of the speech explaining his actions, as opposed to laying out new initiatives. He defended his administration's move to bail out U.S. banks, saying he understands the frustration of taxpayers who saw bailout money spent irresponsibly but that it is essential to get credit flowing.
"I intend to hold these banks fully accountable for the assistance they receive, and this time they will have to clearly demonstrate how taxpayer dollars result in more lending for the American taxpayer," he said. "This time, CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks, or buy fancy drapes, or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over." (More On What Mr. Obama Said About The Bailout)
Still, he noted, his plan "will require significant resources from the federal government and, yes, probably more than we've already set aside."
The president also suggested that both the previous administration and irresponsible homeowners were to blame for the current crisis.
Americans have lived through an era, he said, in which "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."
"A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future," he said. "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. And all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day."
"To solve our current problems, Washington must lead," he said. "But the way to lead is not to raise taxes, not to just put more money and power in the hands of Washington politicians. The way to lead is by empowering you, the American people, because we believe that Americans can do anything."
Sen. John McCain, Mr. Obama's Republican rival for the presidency, called the speech "very effective," but added in a post-address interview with CBS News' Katie Couric, "I don't know how you increase all of these programs and still cut spending to a point where you cut the deficit in half." (Watch full interview.)
Mr. Obama, who focused largely on domestic issues, not foreign policy, said that because of the massive deficit and tough economic landscape, his proposed budget will not include every project some might have hoped for.
"My budget does not attempt to solve every problem or address every issue," he said. "It reflects the stark reality of what we've inherited: a trillion-dollar deficit, a financial crisis, and a costly recession."
He told members of Congress that everyone in the room - Republicans, Democrats and the president himself - "will have to sacrifice some worthy priorities for which there are no dollars."
Noting his pledge to halve the budget by the end of his first term, the president stressed that his administration is reviewing the federal budget "line by line" to find unnecessary programs that can be cut. Already, he said, the administration has identified two trillion dollars in potential savings over the next ten years. (More On What Mr. Obama Said About The Budget And Taxes)
The president stressed the importance of green energy initiatives, noting that the U.S. had fallen behind other countries in harnessing renewable energy, producing solar technology and hybrid vehicles and calling for a market-based cap on carbon pollution. (More On What Mr. Obama Said About Energy)
He blamed both "years of bad decision-making" and the recession for pushing automakers to the brink of bankruptcy. He said that while America "should not and will not protect them from their own bad practices... we are committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win."
The president also said he would prioritize health care and the "crushing cost" associated with it.
Even though it has already been passed by lawmakers, Mr. Obama also touted his stimulus plan Tuesday night. The legislation is likely to be an issue in the upcoming midterm elections, and even in the president's reelection campaign, and he may have an eye on political considerations even at this early point in his presidency, argues CBS News political director Steve Chaggaris.
"Mr. Obama is in a position where, politically, he's forced to remind Americans that he's trying to do the right thing to clean up a mess he 'inherited' in order to counter the incessant criticism and virtual non-existent support the plan has received from Republicans," writes Chaggaris. (Read his full analysis of the speech here.)
Mr. Obama told assembled lawmakers that he and his ideological opponents can still find common ground on the basis of their shared love of country and their desire to see it succeed, drawing a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle.
"That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months, and where we return after those debates are done," he said.
He went on to laud Americans who are working to put the country back on track, saying he had learned that "hope is found in unlikely places, that inspiration often comes not from those with the most power or celebrity, but from the dreams and aspirations of ordinary Americans who are anything but ordinary."
A CBS News/Knowledge Networks poll of 534 people who watched the speech, taken immediately afterward, found that eighty percent approved of President Obama's plans for dealing with the economic crisis. Before the speech, 63 percent approved.
Seventy-five percent of speech watchers said after the address that they had a good understanding of President Obama's economic plans, compared to 58 percent before the speech. (See the full poll results here.)