Obama aims for sober honesty, optimism in address

By Jennifer Loven

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 24 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

President Barack Obama.

Ron Edmonds, Associated Press

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.

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