“We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.” With those words President Barack Hussein Obama, the nation’s 44th commander-in-chief and the first Black to occupy the Oval Office, declared his resolve to lead the United States out of a devastating recession and down the road to recovery and prosperity. It was a dramatic declaration of resolve for a President just one month into his term and faced with the greatest challenge to the nation’s economy since the Great Depression. Yet, with those words, President Obama began to lay out his vision, in frank and unyielding terms to a joint session of Congress last night.
The speech was not designated a “State of the Union” address but it was replete with all the formality of the formal report to Congress required by the Constitution. It was televised by all of the major broadcast and cable television networks, and the President’s speech drew a formal response from the Republican Party. Gathered inside the chamber of the House of Representatives in the U.S. Capitol were members of the House and Senate, the President’s Cabinet, members of the diplomatic corps, and justices of the United States Supreme Court. As is the case with most everything this President does, history was made when the chamber was called to order and President Obama was announced and strode confidently to the podium, shaking hands with Democrats and Republicans alike as he made his way down the aisle to thunderous applause. It marked the first time a Black American had been introduced as “the President of the United States” in a joint session of Congress.
Smiling broadly, the President showed a bit of pre-speech jitters when he prematurely started to thank Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sitting behind him with Vice President Joe Biden, before the Speaker could give the customary second introduction that traditionally brings the chamber to its feet for another round of applause. Without breaking his grin, President Obama then said, “Madame Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the First Lady of the United States,” acknowledging the next two Constitutional officers in the line of succession and his wife, Michelle Obama, who was sitting above the chamber in the gallery.
The speech was one of the most anticipated in recent presidential history. Anytime a joint session of Congress is called, it marks an occasion of national importance, most often a situation that is an emergency in nature. The mood on Capitol Hill has been contentious since the passing and signing of the President’s “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” as some Republican governors have suggested they will refuse federal funds related to various provisions of the stimulus bill. At the same time, the market had closed at its lowest level since 1997 in the days prior to the speech, only to rebound upon Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke’s suggestion during his testimony on the Hill that the economy could rebound in 2010. The administration knew going into the speech that it would set the tone for his economic policy and several major battles he would engage in future months over his agenda.
Still, the President walked into the chamber knowing that he had extraordinarily high public approval ratings according to recent polling. Though some Republican support has dropped off due to the contentious fight over the stimulus bill, Mr. Obama is still riding a wave of popular support that puts the GOP in a bind as to how to move an agenda when public opinion is clearly in the President’s corner.
The President set the tone for his speech by declaring, “The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation. The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach.” He then went on to lay out an indictment of prior behavior that he blamed on both parties, and the American public, noting, “In other words, we have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election. A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market. People bought homes they knew they couldn’t afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway.”
Mr. Obama also sought to address skepticism over the economic stimulus plan and took time to point out some of the specific provisions that would directly aid Americans. He noted that funds from the package helped retain 57 police officers in Minneapolis who faced layoffs in the absence of an influx of cash into that community. President Obama also stressed that he has put in place accountability measures, including a website, to track stimulus spending and has directed Vice President Biden to oversee his accountability initiative. In stating the Vice President would lead a “tough” oversight effort, President Obama jokingly said, “because nobody messes with Joe.”
The President also referenced his housing plan, stating, “It's a plan that won't help speculators or that neighbor down the street who bought a house he could never hope to afford, but it will help millions of Americans who are struggling with declining home values, Americans who will now be able to take advantage of the lower interest rates that this plan has already helped to bring about.”
In a very noticeable departure from his predecessor, Mr. Obama seemed at ease in front of the packed chamber and before a global audience in the hundreds of millions. The speech took on the feel of an Economics 101 lecture as the President spoke in very clear terms about the credit crisis. “Too many bad loans from the housing crisis have made their way onto the books of too many banks. And with so much debt and so little confidence, these banks are now fearful of lending out any more money to households, to businesses, or even to each other,” noted President Obama.
He would make the banking crisis a centerpiece of his speech. His pledge to bring the nation’s banking system under control and hold financial institutions to high standards drew applause from Democrats and Republicans when Mr. Obama declared, “This time -- this time, CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks, or buy fancy drapes, or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over.”
Despite the tough talk toward the banking industry, Mr. Obama was quick to point out that he was prepared to assist financial institutions because “It's not about helping banks; it's about helping people.”
A good portion of the last third of his speech was focused on his first budget and the spending priorities he has in place, covering three critical areas: energy, health care and education. The President called on Congress to submit to him legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and spurs the production of renewal industry. He also said his administration will invest $15 billion in technologies such as wind and solar power. Mr. Obama also expressed support for a re-tooled automobile industry.
President Obama noted that the stimulus package included funding for the transition to electronic health records and a new initiative with the goal of seeking a cure for cancer in our lifetime. He also announced that he will convene a group of businesses and workers, doctors, health care providers, and members of Congress from both parties next week to begin mapping the strategy to achieve comprehensive health care reform. To make his point that he is committed to addressing health care President Obama emphatically declared, “So let there be no doubt: Health care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year.”
The President also forcefully laid out his vision for education. “Right now, 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.” He then went on to outline provisions in the federal stimulus package designed to help students; including an expansion of early childhood education, increase in Pell grants, and in his first budget, new incentives for teacher performance. He also announced a new national service initiative that will carry the names of Senator Orrin Hatch (D-OR) and Senator Edward Kennedy (D-IL) that will provide young people who volunteer with financial assistance to attend college.
By most measures, President Obama hit all the right marks in his first major presidential address since his inauguration one month ago. He once again commanded the national spotlight and used his powerful oratory to rise above the din of recent partisan sniping and appeal directly to the American public. His personal appeal and connection with the public are powerful tools that should weigh heavily upon the Republican Party’s strategy in opposition to Mr. Obama’s agenda. With Republicans in the chamber frequently applauding the President’s remarks, the night elevated Mr. Obama above the political fray and has given him license to abandon old conventions in the pursuit of his agenda.