WASHINGTON — As the dreadful economic news piles up, President Barack Obama challenged the nation Saturday to not just hang in there but rather to see the hard times as a chance to "discover great opportunity in the midst of great crisis."
The work week ended on another dour note, with 651,000 more American jobs slashed in February and an unemployment rate climbing to 8.1 percent. That is the highest rate of people out of work in more than 25 years, as the recession continued to put enormous pressures on families and industries.
"That is what we can do and must do today. And I am absolutely confident that is what we will do," Obama said in his weekly radio and video address, taped a day earlier at the White House.
Obama recapped the work of another hectic week in his young presidency. His goal was to reassure the country that he and his team are taking specific steps to create jobs in the short term and begin to address huge issues, like health care, that affect virtually everyone.
Health care in sights
His rundown of the past week: the launch of a more detailed plan to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure; a new credit plan to spur lending for people and businesses; an overhaul of the way the government hands out private contracts to reduce waste; and a summit on how to fix the nation's health care crisis.
On the last point, Obama has set a goal of signing a bill this year that would fix the U.S. health care system, which is the costliest in the world and leaves an estimated 48 million people uninsured, plus many others lacking adequate coverage.
"Our ideas and opinions about how to achieve this reform will vary, but our goal must be the same: quality, affordable health care for every American that no longer overwhelms the budgets of families, businesses and our government," Obama said.
Obama says he is not wedded to a plan on how to fix the problem. But one proposal he has endorsed, giving Americans the option of buying medical coverage through a government plan, is drawing opposition from Republicans.
Republican Rep. Roy Blunt emphasized that point in the Republican weekly radio address.
"I'm concerned that if the government steps in it will eventually push out the private health care plans millions of Americans enjoy today," Blunt said. "This could cause your employer to simply stop offering coverage, hoping the government will pick up the slack."
As the White House takes on so many huge issues at once, Obama is encouraging people to take a longer view, and not get caught up in the fits and starts. The president said in his address that the nation will continue to face difficult days in the months ahead. Still, he ended with hope.
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"Yes, this is a moment of challenge for our country," Obama said. "But we've experienced great trials before. And with every test, each generation has found the capacity to not only endure, but to prosper — to discover great opportunity in the midst of great crisis."
Stem cell reversal
Meanwhile, on Monday Obama plans to reverse limits imposed by President George W. Bush on using federal money for research with embryonic stem cells.
The long-promised move will allow a rush of research aimed at one day better treating, if not curing, ailments from diabetes to paralysis — research that crosses partisan lines.
But it stirs intense controversy over whether government crosses a moral line with such research, and opponents promptly denounced the move.
Obama will hold an event at the White House to announce the move, a senior administration official said Friday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the policy had not yet been publicly announced.
Embryonic stem cells are master cells that can morph into any cell of the body. Scientists hope to harness them so they can create replacement tissues to treat a variety of diseases — such as new insulin-producing cells for diabetics, cells that could help those with Parkinson's disease or maybe even Alzheimer's, or new nerve connections to restore movement after spinal injury.
But the research is controversial because days-old embryos must be destroyed to obtain the cells, and some conservatives believe that destroys a life. The embryos typically are culled from fertility-clinic leftovers otherwise destined to be thrown away.
Under Bush, taxpayer money for that research was limited to a small number of stem cell lines that were created before Aug. 9, 2001, lines that in many cases had some drawbacks that limited their potential usability.
But hundreds more of such lines — groups of cells that can continue to propagate in lab dishes — have been created since then, ones that scientists say are healthier, better suited to creating treatments for people rather than doing basic laboratory science.
Work didn't stop. Indeed, it advanced enough that this summer, the private Geron Corp. will begin the world's first study of a treatment using human embryonic stem cells, in people who recently suffered a spinal cord injury.
Nor does Obama's change fund creation of new lines. But it means that scientists who until now have had to rely on private donations to work with these newer stem cell lines can apply for government money for the research, just like they do for studies of gene therapy or other treatment approaches.
The aim of the policy is to restore "scientific integrity" to the process, the administration official said.
"America's biomedical research enterprise experienced steady decline over the past eight years, with shrinking budgets and policies that elevated ideology over science. This slowed the pace of discovery and the search for cures," said Sean Morrison, director of the University of Michigan's Center for Stem Cell Biology.
Critics immediately denounced the move.
"Taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for experiments that require the destruction of human life," said Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council.
Indeed, there are different types of stem cells: So-called adult stem cells that produce a specific type of tissue; younger stem cells found floating in amniotic fluid or the placenta. Scientists even have learned to reprogram certain cells to behave like stem cells.
But even researchers who work with varying types consider embryonic stem cells the most flexible and thus most promising form — and say that science, not politics, should ultimately judge.
"Science works best and patients are served best by having all the tools at our disposal," Daley said.
Obama made it clear during the campaign he would overturn Bush's directive.
More on Stem cells
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