Obama Urges Bold Action and Big Ideas
WASHINGTON — It had all the trappings of a State of the Union address but since technically it was not, President Obama did not have to utter those traditional words: “The state of our union is strong.” Because, frankly, it isn’t.
This was the year that pretense and pride fell by the wayside and the president reported to the nation that things have skidded wildly off course. Then over the course of nearly an hour, Mr. Obama sought to convince an angry, anxious America that a moment of crisis is actually a time for expanding aspirations, not shrinking horizons.
The young new president projected a voice of generational confidence to a public that by one measure is less confident than at any other time since Mr. Obama was in grade school. He invested his popularity behind a plan that he said would not only “restart the engine of our prosperity” but also transform the country with “bold action and big ideas.”
As he tried to navigate the divide between hope and realism, the vision he articulated was in some ways anything but unifying. His ideas for raising taxes on the wealthy, revamping the health care system and reversing climate change represent a philosophical agenda that strikes at the heart of the other party’s core beliefs. While he said he did not believe in “bigger government,” he proposed a more activist government than any other since Lyndon B. Johnson.
But Mr. Obama skated past his disagreements with Republicans to claim a broader mandate to seize “opportunity from ordeal.” Though he pushed through a huge economic recovery package in his first month in office, he failed to forge the partisan consensus he had sought. So his speech before a nationally televised audience on Tuesday was a chance to shift from legislative leader to national leader.
“As we stand at this crossroads of history,” he said from the rostrum in the House chamber, “the eyes of all people in all nations are once again upon us, watching to see what we do with this moment, waiting for us to lead.”
Mr. Obama arrived at this moment after a burst of action — a $787 billion stimulus package, a housing program and a bank rescue operation — intended to stand the economy up again. And yet with relentless force, the bad economic news has kept pounding away.
The biggest banks in the country appear to be on the edge of collapse. The markets have been plunging. Consumer confidence has fallen to record lows. No recovery is likely before 2010, Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, said Tuesday, even as he tried to douse fears of bank failures and nationalization.
The White House hoped to use the Tuesday night address to reassure the nation that better times are ahead, likening the speech to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats during the Great Depression. After weeks of rather gloomy rhetoric, focused on pressuring Congress to agree to his stimulus plan, Mr. Obama struck a more optimistic, forward-leaning tone, promising that the country “will emerge stronger than before.”
At the same time, Mr. Obama associated himself with those exasperated with Wall Street titans and irresponsible homebuyers. He, too, is angry, he said.
Executives padding paychecks with taxpayer money? “Those days are over,” he declared.
Helping bankers who got everyone into this mess? “I promise you, I get it,” he said.
But Mr. Obama also reached for the same patriotic resonance that has sustained other presidents in bad times. “We are not quitters,” he proclaimed.
And, he argued, “we cannot afford to govern out of anger or yield to the politics of the moment.”
He tried to make the case that “it’s not about helping banks, it’s about helping people.” If banks are stabilized, he said, then credit returns and Americans can get loans to buy cars and houses. The alternative, Mr. Obama warned, is a decade of hard times.
Another approach might have been simply to preach patience, to seek time for his initiatives to take root. Mr. Obama chose, instead, to use the urgency of the moment to push forward with an agenda first devised during better economic times. He argued that education, health care and energy were a vital part of the long-term sustainability of the economy.
He gave his program no nifty new brand name, no “New Deal” or “Great Society,” not even the “New Covenant” that Bill Clinton briefly tried out and quickly abandoned, or George W. Bush’s overshadowed “Ownership Society.” But he likened his program to those of other periods of upheaval when the nation responded with major steps, from the expansion of the rail system in the Civil War to the G.I. Bill that sent World War II veterans to college.To use Mr. Obama’s word, that vision is an audacious one, for a difficult time. After soaking in the applause and shaking hands on the way out of the chamber on Tuesday night, Mr. Obama now must find a way to get his own credit flowing to cash in on a big investment.