Obama Balances Economic Optimism and Realism in First Address to Congress

The new president called for action on healthcare reform, energy independence, and education.

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President Barack Obama walked a fine line between realism and optimism in his speech to a joint session of Congress last night.

After describing the economy in dire terms for weeks—and warning that the current recession could turn into a catastrophe—Obama tried to be reassuring and confident in his latest assessment. "We will rebuild," he told a national television audience from the House chamber. "We will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before." These comments echoed the can-do optimism of other presidents who have led effectively during crises, especially Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. 

Obama added that the country can take heart from the steps that the government has already made, including measures to stabilize the financial industry and a $787 billion economic stimulus package. "You should also know that the money you've deposited in banks across the country is safe; your insurance is secure; you can rely on the continued operation of our financial system," he said.

He added: "The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach. What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more."

More specifically, he called for congressional action on three top priorities—healthcare reform, energy independence, and strengthening education. His administration is expected to add details to his goals in those three areas when it submits a budget outline tomorrow.

Obama also did his share of finger-pointing at the administration of George W. Bush, whom he succeeded in office. Obama said he inherited a deficit exceeding $1 trillion and a serious recession. "A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future," Obama 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."

He added: "Now is the time to act boldly and wisely to not only revive this economy but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity."

A poll last night by CBS News and Knowledge Networks found that most people who watched the address were impressed. Eighty percent approved of Obama's plans for dealing with the economic crisis, up from 63 percent before the speech. Fifty-one percent said the president's economic plans will help them personally, up from 36 percent. Seventy-four percent said Obama's plans will make the overall economy better; 11 percent said they will make the economy worse, and 15 percent said Obamanomics will make no difference.

It was Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress.

He was greeted warmly by members of the House and Senate, especially by fellow Democrats, who repeatedly interrupted his speech with applause and cheers. Republicans were more restrained, except when Obama talked about the need for fiscal discipline, which they are trying to promote as a defining issue for the GOP. Then, they gave him an ovation—which caused the president to break into a smile.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the son of immigrants from India and at 37 one of the nation's youngest governors, gave the GOP response. He said that the answer to the economic crisis isn't to give more power and money to the government. "The way to lead is by empowering you, the American people, because we believe that Americans can do anything," Jindal said. He argued that congressional Democrats were "irresponsible" for passing legislation that spends "money we do not have on things we do not need."