President Obama reassured a nervous nation Tuesday night that his administration will continue to respond aggressively to the economic crisis and still pursue broad reforms in areas such as health care, energy and education. In his first address to Congress, the new president balanced candor about the deep recession with optimism for a long-term agenda that would be ambitious even in good times. It was an impressive performance and a powerful reminder that America's challenges stretch beyond the daily stock market swings and grim reports of job losses, home foreclosures and bankruptcies.
"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,'' Obama said to a crowded House chamber and national television audience. "The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation. The answers to our problems don't lie beyond our reach.''
This was not a night for soaring rhetoric or statistics. Instead, the former college professor delivered an accessible account of how the nation arrived at this "day of reckoning'' — and how spending now to revive the economy must be followed by sacrifice to reduce the federal deficit. He seamlessly blended a frank assessment about the immediate economic challenges with an optimistic view of the future. For Americans fearful of losing their jobs, homes and retirement savings, he offered both help and hope.
Obama already has demonstrated with the economic stimulus package that he is capable of moving toward larger goals even as he deals with the immediate crisis. He insisted on including such efforts as moving toward electronic health care records and encouraging investment in energy while aiming to create or protect 3.5 million jobs over the next two years. That brought legitimate criticism that those efforts should stand apart from projects that are ready to go and will create jobs. Selling health care reform, changes to entitlement programs and a new approach to energy will require Obama to continue to reach out to Republicans in Congress as he did again Tuesday. He also will have to rein in the most liberal members of his own party to win broad support for major initiatives.
There are pragmatic and political reasons for the president to steer the conversation beyond the immediate crisis. The nation's long-term economic well-being is directly linked to making health care more accessible and affordable, becoming more energy independent and investing in education. The president's approval ratings remain high, and he intends to spend some of his political capital.
"History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation,'' Obama said, "this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas.'' The young president intends this moment to be no different.