Technically speaking, U.S. President Barack Obama’s address to a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday was not a state of the union speech. The president has been in office a little more than a month and he felt that was not enough time to render a judgment on the state of the nation. In fact, the speech he gave to Congress and his constituents was indistinguishable from such presidential addresses. It noted the severe challenges that the country faces and outlined his vision to deal with them. The key pillars of his agenda reflect those identified in his campaign and the speech itself echoed his inaugural address Jan. 20. The question is whether Mr. Obama has the muscle to get his program through a balky Congress — and whether events will derail his ambitious plans.
It is hard to believe that Mr. Obama has been in office for just one month. During that time he has mustered through Congress the largest stimulus package in history, and unveiled mortgage protection plans and a bank recapitalization program. His first budget, released the day after his speech to Congress, totals a staggering $3.55 trillion, and he aims to cut the record $1.75 trillion deficit in half by 2013.
To move the nation he has had to walk a fine line, one that stresses the urgency of action without creating a panic of its own. The twin needs were evident in his victory speech in November, when he eschewed soaring rhetoric and focused on the difficult tasks that lie ahead. There were elements of Tuesday’s speech in his inaugural address, when he pointed to false choices that had been made in the past and the failure to look ahead.
In recent weeks, there has been a growing chorus of complaints that Mr. Obama has appeared too dour. The president, a soaring orator, should tap his skills to reanimate the nation and get it to unite behind him. Some of this criticism reflected Mr. Obama’s focus on politicians in Washington: Rhetorical flights that work outside the Beltway inflame passions in Congress and undermine the sober, painstaking work at compromise that is needed to pass big legislation.
This time he wasted no time getting to the point. Speaking “frankly and directly,” he acknowledged the depth and severity of the economic crisis that has seized the nation but promised “We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.” The problem, he said, was that “for too long, we have not always met these responsibilities — as a government or as a people. . . 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.” This call to take responsibility has marked Mr. Obama’s thinking since he set out on the campaign trail.
The plan Mr. Obama outlined takes the long view. It rests on three fundamental pillars — energy, health care and education. If his vision is implemented, the reforms it embraces have the potential to transform the U.S. His energy policy seeks to double the nation’s supply of renewable energy in the next three years, and he is prepared to spend $15 billion annually to achieve that goal. In addition, he wants a market-based cap on carbon pollution to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to spur production of more greener energy in the U.S.
He called for comprehensive health care and outlined first steps — investment in new technology such as electronic health records, work on cancer, and “the largest investment ever in preventive care” — that would provide “quality, affordable health care for every American.” His education plan focuses on early childhood education and creation of new incentives for teachers and schools. In keeping with his emphasis on responsibility, Mr. Obama asked students to step up, too. He wants them “to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training” and pledged tuition aid for those “willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country.”
There were complaints that Mr. Obama didn’t turn to foreign policy until near the end of his speech. He started with Iraq and Afghanistan and then mentioned Israel and Pakistan. His theme — just eight paragraphs in a 52-minute speech — was the need to engage other nations to deal with new challenges, be it the global economic crisis, pandemic diseases, cyber threats, or poverty.
On this he is absolutely right. The most important lesson of the last few years is that even the most powerful nation in the world, with the most advanced military in history, cannot reshape the world in its image alone. It must work with other nations to realize a common vision. His agenda, especially the goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, provides a framework for joint action.
Mr. Obama is also right to point out that one of the most important obstacles to that cooperative effort is “a deficit of trust.” Here again, the way forward requires a realistic accounting of his country’s strengths and weaknesses, along with a call to action. The U.S. cannot shy away from its burdens, nor assume that other nations will always step in line. America can lead, but leadership must be earned. Mr. Obama showed he understands that.
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