Declaring that “I do not accept second place for the United States of America,” President Barack Obama compared the economic crisis to the greatest challenges of the nation’s past Wednesday night, saying “history’s call” demanded a years-long freeze on huge chunks of popular government spending programs.
In his first State of the Union address, Obama bluntly compared the recession to great challenges of the past like the Civil War and the bloody struggle for civil rights in the 1960s. While there has been progress, it has stalled, he said, telling lawmakers in the House chamber and millions of Americans at home that “the devastation remains.”
“I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people,” Obama said. “... This problem is not going away.”
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After having campaigned for the White House by promising to expand government help for struggling segments of the population, Obama reversed course Wednesday night. He called for a total freeze for three years, beginning in 2011, on all government spending other than national security and public insurance programs that are mandated by law — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
“All other discretionary government programs” will be affected, Obama said, encompassing education, agriculture, law enforcement and thousands of other government programs.
Obama laid the groundwork for his proposal by counting down a long list of the economic challenges the country confronts as he enters his second year in office: 10 percent unemployment, bankrupt businesses, falling home values, rising education costs, a distrustful and fractured political environment.
“Small towns and rural communities have been hit especially hard,” the president said. “For those who had already known poverty, life has become that much harder.”
Fighting a ‘deficit of trust’
Obama was calling for Americans to wage a battle on “a deficit of trust” in U.S. society that has crippled the government’s ability to address its deficit of dollars.
“It begins with our economy,” Obama said, signaling that jobs and the recession had risen to the top of his agenda even as the contentious debate over health care reform rested on a knife’s edge in Congress.
“Jobs must be our number one focus in 2010, and that is why I am calling for a new jobs bill tonight,” he said. “... People are out of work. They are hurting. They need our help. And I want a jobs bill on my desk without delay.”
Acknowledging unhappiness with the bailout of the American banking system, Obama further proposed that $30 billion of bailout money repaid by the banks be diverted to help community banks to extend more credit to small businesses. And he called again for repeal of capital gains taxes on investments by small business.
The president defended his performance against opinion surveys showing popular dismay with the country’s economic picture. He stood by his economic stimulus plan, which he said had made progress without raising taxes.
But he acknowledged that progress had been slow and said it would require the collective will of the American people to bring about true change.
“We do not give up. We do not quit. We do not allow fear or division to break our spirit” he said. “In this new decade, it’s time the American people get a government that matches their decency, that embodies their strength.”
‘Deep and corrosive doubts’
Forces of division — in politics and in society at large — threaten to close the door on progress, however, Obama warned.
“We have to recognize that we face more than a deficit of dollars right now,” he said. “We face a deficit of trust — deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years.”
He said Americans were frustrated by Washington’s “perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about their opponent — a belief that if you lose, I win.”
Obama noted the Republicans’ takeover of Democratic icon Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts last week, a result that eliminated the Democrats’ ability to pass most bills without Republican cooperation.
He said he understood that “campaign fever has come even earlier than usual.”
“But we still need to govern,” he said, telling Republicans that if their leaders “insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town — a supermajority — then the responsibility to govern is now yours, as well.”
But the problem is not just in Congress, said Obama, who called on lawmakers to pass legislation to blunt the Supreme Court’s ruling last week allowing corporations to spend directly on campaigns.
“I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities,” he said, seizing on the Supreme Court’s decision as an opening to rally his Democratic base by reviving one of the party’s most cherished campaigning tools — bashing corporate influence on the political system.
Obama briefly touched on other topics, notably vowing to seek a repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule limiting the rights of gay Americans to serve — a promise he made in his presidential campaign but had not followed up on.
But he made no mention of other contentious issues, including conflict in the Middle East or his delay on fulfilling his promise to close the U.S. detenton facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Instead, he devoted more than three-quarters of his speech to the economy, hoping to convince Americans that he understood their struggles to pay their bills while big banks get bailouts and bonuses.
Even as he spoke, however, many of his ideas were already being dismissed — on the right and the left alike — as poorly targeted or too modest to make a difference in a record federal deficit of $1.4 trillion.
Republicans sought to capitalize on the Democrats’ tough straits with their response, delivered by Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia .
In a departure from most other modern opposition responses, McDonnell delivered his remarks before a live audience in the Virginia House of Delegates in Richmond, hoping to demonstrate popular support for Republican positions.
"The president's partial freeze on discretionary spending is a laudable step, but a small one. The circumstances of our time demand that we reconsider and restore the proper, limited role of government at every level," he said.
“Good government policy should spur economic growth, and strengthen the private sector’s ability to create new jobs.
“We must enact policies that promote entrepreneurship and innovation, so America can better compete with the world. What government should not do is pile on more taxation, regulation and litigation that kill jobs and hurt the middle class."
There was unhappiness on the left, too.
Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington, one of the most liberal members of Congress, said, “Nothing is going to change tomorrow morning in terms of cooperating.”
Speaking of Republicans who have stymied action on several Democratic legislative initiatives, McDermott said Obama needed to “get the message that you’ve got to give up on those guys and pass stuff.”
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