WASHINGTON — Addressing a nation on an economic precipice, President Barack Obama asked worried Americans to pull together Tuesday night and declared reassuringly that the U.S. "will emerge stronger than before." Obama aimed to balance candor with can-do in his first address to a joint session of Congress.
"The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation," Obama said. "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."
The comments were included in excerpts from the speech that were released early by the White House.
Set to address an ebullient Democratic congressional majority and an embattled but reinvigorated GOP minority as well as millions of anxious viewers at home, Obama was arguing that his still-unfolding economic revival plan has room for — even demands — a broader agenda including dramatic increases in health care coverage and wiser, "greener" fuel use.
"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," he said. "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."
Just five weeks after his inauguration, Obama wasn't charged with producing a formal State of the Union status report. But for all intents and purposes, that's what it was: a night for the president to sketch out his priorities in a setting unmatched the rest of the year.
The gallery was to include a special section hosted by first lady Michelle Obama in which guests were selected to serve as living symbols of the president's goals. Cramming the floor were to be the leaders of the federal government: Supreme Court justices, all but one Cabinet member — held away in case disaster strikes — and nearly every member of Congress.
Pre-speech, Wall Street was in a better mood than it had been in for days: Stocks were up after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said the recession might end this year.
Comments on Obama's address came in early from Republicans, hours before he had uttered a word.
Louisiana's young, charismatic governor, Bobby Jindal, who was delivering the televised GOP response to the Democratic president, exhorted fellow Republicans to be Obama's "strongest partners" when they agree with him. But he signaled that won't happen much, calling Democrats in Congress "irresponsible" for passing the $787 billion stimulus package that Republicans have criticized as excessive and wasteful.
"The way to lead is not to raise taxes and put more money and power in hands of Washington politicians," Jindal said, according to excerpts of his remarks released by the Republican Party. "Who among us would ask our children for a loan, so we could spend money we do not have, on things we do not need?"
Jindal is considered a likely presidential contender in 2012.
In contrast to many State of the Union addresses by George W. Bush, Obama was not expected to emphasize foreign policy.
He planned to touch on his intention to chart new strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan and to forge a new image for the U.S. around the world even as he keeps up the fight against terrorism.
But with the economy in a recession that already has lasted longer than any other in a quarter-century, that was the dominant topic.
The president aimed to drive home several points:
— He inherited the mess, and a quick turnaround is unlikely. Not only did the recession emerge on Bush's watch, the Bush approach wasn't the right one.
— He's tackling the situation on multiple fronts. Already done: the massive stimulus plan, an overhaul of the separate $700 billion bailout for the financial sector, and a $275 billion rescue for struggling homeowners. On the way: decisions about limping U.S. automakers, a move to broadly rewrite financial industry regulations and perhaps more money aimed at propping up banks.
— Thinking short-term won't do the trick. Focusing even amid the crisis on longer-term goals such as helping the millions without health insurance and switching the U.S. to greater dependence on alternative energy sources is crucial to the nation's economic well-being.
Also crucial is bringing down the estimated $1.3 trillion budget deficit that is ballooning as Washington pours money into the economic recovery. Obama was to declare that the budget request he sends to Congress on Thursday will slash the deficit by at least half by the end of his term in 2013, in large part by ending U.S. combat in Iraq and eliminating some of Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy.22 comments on this story
He was also expected to talk of a continuing need to reach across ideological boundaries, and for him to connect with the everyday Americans dealing with hard times. Obama hoped to hit just the right note with this address: grim enough to be honest but optimistic enough to be inspiring.
"Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure," Obama said.
New polls showed how the political climate can be as precarious as the economic one.
While a new Washington Post-ABC News survey found 68 percent of the public approves of Obama's job performance, a Gallup poll also out Tuesday showed his approval rating falling to 59 percent.