In a very measured, somber tone, President Barack Obama delivered his first address before a joint session of Congress Tuesday evening in the House of Representatives, and those assembled got their share of exercise, rising often to applaud what essentially was more explanation of his recovery plan.
Right from the beginning, about four paragraphs into his speech, the president laid out the theme for the evening: “We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”
That emergence and that strength, Obama insisted, would come from the combined results of the American people. “The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation,” he said. “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,” Obama continued. “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.”
At the top of his overall agenda, Obama explained, was providing jobs for the American people. But at the core of his economic plan, the focus was on energy, healthcare and education, and he took time to describe in clear terms how he planned to address these pressing issues. “We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century,” he asserted. “And yet, it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient. We invented solar technology, but we’ve fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it. New plug-in hybrids roll off our assembly lines, but they will run on batteries made in Korea.”
Obama said he will not accept a future where the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root beyond our borders. “And I know you don’t either. It is time for America to lead again,” he said to a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle.
There was more thunderous applause when he addressed the crushing cost of healthcare. “This is a cost that now causes a bankruptcy in America every thirty seconds,” Obama said. “By the end of the year, it could cause 1.5 million Americans to lose their homes. In the last eight years, premiums have grown four times faster than wages.
And in each of these years, one million more Americans have lost their health insurance. It is one of the major reasons why small businesses close their doors and corporations ship jobs overseas. And it’s one of the largest and fastest-growing parts of our budget. Given these facts, we can no longer afford to put healthcare reform on hold.” On the issue of education, Obama was equally passionate and assertive. “Right now,” he said, “three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma. And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. And half of the students who begin college never finish.
“This is a prescription for economic decline,” he warned, “because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow. That is why it will be the goal of this administration to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education–from the day they are born to the day they begin a career.” Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, in his evaluation of the address, praised the president and echoed some of the more pertinent points. “We must invest in healthcare, housing, education, energy and jobs,” he said in a statement to the press. “These are fundamental aspects of American life. But he also told us that we must all take a good, hard look at government spending, as well as our own personal spending, and be willing to cut projects and programs that are no longer effective.
“I have heard many presidents speak,” Lewis added. “I think this speech was one of the best. It was the right message at the right time for a nation that needs to be inspired and to be determined to meet the challenges of the next few years head on.”
Noted commentator and Democratic Party consultant Donna Brazile also gave the speech high marks during her appearance on ABC-TV. “The speech was at times very somber, but at other times, it was upbeat, optimistic.”
On the other hand, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, during his rebuttal of the speech, found it neither optimistic nor upbeat. In a dry, rather stiff response, Jindal chastised Obama’s speech and said the Republican Party must return to core values. He objected to “the massive government spending” proposed by the Obama administration.
Many pundits viewed this as the Republican Party’s opportunity to trot out a possible candidate to challenge Obama in 2012, and move to the far right, though the election of Michael Steele to head the party suggests a differing tactic.
During his speech, Obama got the longest and loudest response when he paid tribute to those Americans who have served or are serving in the armed forces. “As we meet here tonight,” the president said, pausing for a moment, “our men and women in uniform stand watch abroad and more are readying to deploy. To each and every one of them, and to the families who bear the quiet burden of their absence, Americans are united in sending one message: We honor your service, we are inspired by your sacrifice, and you have our unyielding support.”
Obama promised to end the war in Iraq, as he mentioned again and again during the campaign, but it will be interesting to see how and when he removes soldiers from one field of battle and then deploys others to nearby battlegrounds.
“It is time to restart the energy of prosperity,” Obama declared toward the end of his nearly hour-long address, and once more he was greeted with a standing ovation.