WASHINGTON — Call it the tough-love address, with a glimmer of a happy ending.
In his first speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, President Obama warned that America faces a "day of reckoning" after years of trying to make a fast buck, but said the economic turmoil and ruination offer the chance to right the feckless ways of the past and reinvest in institutions and technologies that will ensure a prosperous future.
While Obama continued to hammer at the dour point that has defined the message of his short presidency so far — we are in Big Trouble — the message of Hope that made him such an effective candidate made a bit of a comeback, too, as the president assured voters and Congress that he sees a way out of the thicket, albeit a thorny one.
"We will rebuild, we will recover and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before," he said to thundering applause less than two minutes into the 53-minute-long speech.
"The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation. 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. Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure.
"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."
Tuesday's performance was not a State of the Union address but had all the trappings of one, with special guests seated in a gallery box with first lady Michelle Obama, and members of the Cabinet, U.S. Supreme Court, armed forces and diplomatic corps packing the House chamber at the Capitol.
As with a State of the Union speech, the president used the platform -— and free TV time — to offer a robust defense of the steps he has taken so far, particularly the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the official name for the $789 billion economic stimulus package he signed into law last week, and which remains a target of derision among Republicans.
The speech was dizzying in its range, touching on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his promise of diplomacy, the importance of higher education and his decision to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But he kept returning to the point that America needs to invest if it hopes to enjoy good times again.
"We have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity, where he we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election," Obama said. "Well, that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here.
"Now is the time to act boldly and wisely — to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity."
And while he called for more bipartisan cooperation — another oft-repeated, yet unrequited, message of his short presidency — he also made clear he will soon pursue policies that are sure to be expensive and promote partisan fireworks, including caps on pollution to control global warming; more money for renewable and alternative energy sources; and comprehensive health care reform.
"I suffer no illusions that this will be an easy process. It will be hard. But I also know that nearly a century after Teddy Roosevelt first called for reform, the cost of our health care has weighed down our economy and the conscience of our nation long enough," Obama said. "So let there be no doubt: health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year."
Obama is scheduled to unveil his first budget Thursday, and the speech offered an outline of his forthcoming policies without many specifics. The biggest target for his critics was his pledge to both tighten Washington's belt — "to sacrifice some worthy priorities" — and cut the $1.1 trillion deficit in half while also investing billions of dollars more in new programs and infrastructure. Fighting waste, fraud and abuse, and cutting in unnecessary programs, as Obama pledged, might help some, but Republicans viewed Obama's speech with the irritation of a father who just footed the bill for an extravagant wedding, and now is being asked to kick in for the honeymoon.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who issued the official Republican response, praised Obama's call for cooperation but said the stimulus package could prove a disaster and that Obama's vision for dealing with other pressing matters, including health care, put too much emphasis on government-led solutions and not enough on cutting taxes.
"We appreciate his message of hope — but sometimes it seems we look for hope in different places," said Jindal, the son of Indian immigrants. "Democratic leaders in Washington place their hope in the federal government. We place our hope in you — the American people. In the end, it comes down to an honest and fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government. We oppose the national Democrats ' view that says the way to strengthen our country is to increase dependence on government.
"We believe the way to strengthen our country is to restrain spending in Washington, and empower individuals and small businesses to grow our economy and create jobs.
Wes Allison can be reached at [email protected] or (202) 463-0577.